By RAVEN SNOOK
The three unwittingly connected strangers in Ken Urban's haunting drama The Awake seem to exist in a funhouse mirror reflection of our troubled society. Their unsettling journeys touch on multiple topical issues---the banality of terrorism and torture, the systematic erosion of empathy, corporate evil---but the results are often surreal.
That otherworldly quality is a product of Urban's specific creative process for the play. "I decided to keep a journal of my dreams," he says. "Every morning for a month I wrote down everything I could remember. At first I had all this material and wasn't sure what it was. My initial draft was this crazy scroll, but that's how the building blocks of the play came together."
The quickly rising playwright, who lives in New York City but commutes to Harvard to teach a few days a week, is having a banner summer. WASPS, his over-the-top take on Aristophanes' The Wasps, had a workshop run at the Connelly Theater in July. The Happy Sad, a feature film adaptation of his relationship drama of the same name, earned mostly glowing reviews in mid-August. And now, after years of developmental readings, The Awake is enjoying its world premiere at 59E59. (It runs through September 8.)
At first, none of the three main characters--a twentysomething mama's boy, an on-the-run Canadian, and a middle-aged Eastern European actress---seem to understand where they are or how they got there; they just know their lives have been upended. It takes them, and the audience, a while to get their bearings, and the experience isn't always easy or even pleasant. That's not surprising when you look at some of Urban's influences, like politically-charged British playwright Howard Barker. (Urban even called the work done by The Committee, his now-defunct theatre company "catastrophic theatre," a reference to Barker's Theatre of Catastrophe. When I was starting out, reading his essays about theatre was a powerful experience for me," Urban says. "I actually got into Barker because I was a fan of Sarah Kane and his [collection of essays] Arguments for a Theatre was a favorite of hers."
Like Barker's and Kane's polarizing oeuvre, Urban doesn't expect his plays to be crowd-pleasers. "I know that my work isn't to everybody's taste, and that's fine," he says. "What would hurt my feelings more would be if people found one of my shows unmemorable or got up after and just said, 'Let's go have dinner' and forgot about it. You should have a reaction to good theatre and think about it for a long time."
It's hard to imagine not having a strong response to The Awake. Saying too much about what transpires is unfair, since its mysteries are part of what make it so potent. Suffice it to say that the protagonists are linked by a scary Haliburton-like company and rightfully fear for their safety and sanity. Set pieces include a flooded world, a movie set on fire, and a torture device made by a teenage girl. Most shocking of all? This is all achieved without special effects or even props in the smallest theatre in the 59E59 complex. "This is why I call The Awake 'a radio play for the stage,'" says Urban. "I came up with that phrase after a reading of it in London. Audiences kept saying, 'This will be very expensive---you have to flood the entire stage!' But I told them, 'I'm an American playwright. I'll never have that kind of budget.' The language and sound design do the work. The terrifying elements are better in the mind of the audience than on the stage. Take the torture device: We hear her describe it and we hear a sound, and the audience imagines what it is. That's far more horrifying than if we actually tried to build something."
Since The Awake was inspired by Urban's dreams, he was surprised to discover how many of today's upsetting events have infiltrated his subconscious. "I didn't set out to write an issue play, and I was amazed by how terrifying these visions were," he says. "Living in a culture of fear changes the way you think. In the play, there's a cacophony of all these things happening. Eventually there's a kind of calm at the center, like the eye of a hurricane of all this action, and you have fleeting moments of clarity. That feels like life to me. There's all this stuff going on all around us all the time." The big take away from the The Awake, then? Perhaps we're all living in a nightmare.
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia