There is no playwright working today quite like Annie Baker. She makes unusual demands on any theatre company that dares to take her on. It is a testament to the astonishing vitality of her work that so many producers find the challenge irresistible. And, in the case of Shotgun Players’ decision to take on “The Flick,” this is good news.
Some essentials: Baker, who works in a tradition of strict realism, demands lifelike perfection in her settings, and Randy Wong-Westbooke’s set satisfies completely. Their design fully realizes a rundown movie house. It is typical of Baker’s vision that this realistic setting is also surreal because the audience is sitting in a theatre looking at a theatre. We sit where the screen would be. In a sense, we are the show. The effect is eerie. Baker’s realism is constantly undermined by this sense of eerieness, and this company gets it. Baker often seems to be asking, “Why do we not see the strangeness and depth of the everyday? Look!” The rest of the design team (Kurt Landisman for lights, and Nikki Anderson-Joy for costumes) are equally impressive.
Baker’s extraordinary demands do not stop with the design team. Her actors must play their scenes in real-time, often going for minutes without speaking, repeating themselves, or performing simple tasks (like sweeping out an entire theatre). While most other playwrights will condense time, to ratchet up the dramatic effect, Baker seems to do the opposite, stretching each moment to the breaking point. If the actors can’t “fill” this metaphorical space, the play won’t work. Baker sets a very high bar, but this company of performers, guided by director Jon Tracy, leaps it with finesse.
So what is it about? Sam and Rose are stuck in dead-end jobs running a movie house for a mostly absentee owner who doesn’t seem to care much about the business. Their work life is shaken up by a new staff member, Avery, who is actually passionate about film and is particularly happy to be working in an old theatre that projects 35mm prints, too far behind-the-times to have gone digital.
Baker takes her time in allowing these three to interact, as the details of their emotional lives, their hopes, and their aspirations, rise to the surface as a result of the gentle churnings of their daily interactions.
In the course of the play, these churnings not only reveal character but also touch upon the interplay of character and economics, class, race relations, privilege, art, ethics, and more. As always, with Baker, it is astonishing that so much is revealed by simply allowing time for these things to develop naturally, and avoiding plot manipulations that will force these larger issues to the surface prematurely.
Actors Chris Ginesi as Sam, Justin Howard as Avery, and Ari Rampy as Rose understand the complexities to be found in playing simply, and it is easy to care about these characters. Rob Dario is also fine in the smaller role of a new theater owner (Skyler) whose arrival on the scene brings interesting complications.
Altogether, Director Jon Tracy and company have done an excellent job in realizing Baker’s vision.
“The Flick” plays at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley through September 22. For further information, click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“The Flick” by Annie Baker. Presented by Shotgun Players. Director: Jon Tracy. Set Designer: Randy Wong-Westbrooke. Lighting Designer: Kurt Landisman. Costume Designer: Nikki Anderson-Joy.
Sam: Chris Ginesi. Avery: Justin Howard. Rose: Ari Rampy. Skylar & Sleeping Man: Rob Dario.