By Natalie Rich
Looking through a kaleidoscope is confusing to the eye. The brain attempts to make sense of every detail and every flash of colored light. Some are brilliant, and some confound. Yet for how overwhelming the details are, it is still pleasing and exhilarating. Now imagine the kaleidoscope surrounds you, with every small detail there for you to grasp or miss. Such is “John,” a play by Annie Baker, which elicits the same sensations. Produced by Third Rail Repertory Theatre and performed at CoHo Theatre, it is the story of a couple staying in a bed and breakfast (B&B) in Gettysburg. Jenny and Elias (played by Jennifer Lin and Nick Ferrucci, respectively) have been together for three years, but as is revealed from the first two minutes of the show, their relationship is rocky at best. Mertis Katherine, played by Karen Trumbo, is the owner of the B&B. She is a self-described “neo-Platonist,” and watching Trumbo flit around the B&B offering bizarre foods and questioning the couple on whether they felt “watched” as kids is a delight. They are joined by Mertis’ friend Genevieve (Diane Kondrat), a blind woman who believes the B&B is haunted and describes being driven crazy by her ex-husband John, who she once believed inhabited her soul and the souls of all of those around her. Genevieve’s John isn’t the only John in the show, however. An unseen John looms over Eli and Jenny, and it is revealed early on that he is a man with whom Jenny had an affair.
The play, directed by Lewis & Clark Associate Professor of Theatre Rebecca Lingafelter, is an enigmatic series of fights, stories, dolls, rustling, flickering Christmas lights, space heaters and text messages. Running at around three hours, with two intermissions, there is a very deliberate manipulation of time on the stage. The play spans three days’ time, and Mertis marks the passage of time for us, winding the great grandfather clock in the main room, as the lights shift from day to evening and back again and a digital clock matches its analog counterpart. The digital clock is often the brightest — and definitely most modern — object on the stage, so it is impossible to avoid affecting the audience’s perception of time. The show is never particularly fast, yet never feels sluggish. It just exists, much like life itself. As it keeps ticking, the cracks deepen between Eli and Jenny, both of whom handle their roles deftly and with nuance. Lin as Jenny especially feels grounded in her role. She is constantly clenched, subconsciously, when around Eli, and responds to his attacks and comments with passive-aggressive calmness. But when she explodes, watch out. There is no hero or protagonist in this story. Just two people determined to continually hurt and heal each other, their motives and responses flashing in and out of our eyeline.
Lingafelter’s direction and Peter Kasander’s scenic design are impeccable. Despite the often inexplicable nature of what is being said and done on stage, Lingafelter never lets the audience feel that they are watching a show. The set, which surrounds the audience in the tight-knit CoHo space, encases the audience in the uncomfortable kitsch and forces them to bear witness to the small slice of these people’s lives. We are akin to the dolls that are embedded in every corner of the set. Motionless, watching, and, if you ask Jenny, judging (she is keenly afraid of dolls, particularly the American Girl Samantha doll). At the end of the day, there is simply too much to say about “John”; it is a multifaceted, enigmatic experience that leaves you wondering if time is indeed slowing down, or if you’re just finally taking time to notice the little things.