A man lives alone in a box. His only contact with the outside world are two “caretakers” who are only permitted to ask him a single question: “What are you doing?” Like eerie, futuristic security guards, they watch him on closed-circuit television and supply what he needs by typing commands on a keyboard, which magically delivers whatever he might require — food, a book, even a mop.
Such is the conceit of the Yale Cabaret’s “Rise Up You Bloody Animals.” If it sounds like the makings of an uneventful play, that’s because it is. Very little happens, and much of what does happen ends up being a veritable monologue by the man in the box, Chike (Aaron Verdery DRA ’08). Yet despite its tedium, “Rise Up” is surprisingly gripping. After the initial boredom created by the endless repetition of “What are you doing?”, playwright Sean Michael Welch still manages to pluck heartstrings. It amounts to emotional violation — you might not want to care, but Welch makes you anyway.
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The play opens with Chike waking up. As he goes through his morning routine, caretaker Stam (Alex Manuel Teicheira DRA ’09) pesters him with the question, “What are you doing?” Chike answers petulantly. Though Verdery is a one-man show, racing around the box, jumping up and down and firing back retorts, his energy can’t save the beginning of the play from inducing disengagement. It is easy to dislike the characters in their early banal scenes. However, things begin to get interesting during the shift of the second caretaker, Enid (Susan Soon He Stanton DRA ’10). Despite her limited verbal repertoire (she, too, can only ask, “What are you doing?”), Enid and Chike have developed a sexually-charged relationship.
The tension builds when Stam, who constantly argues on his cell phone with his wife, also falls for Enid. The most powerful moments of the play come when Chike manages to goad the rejected Stam into breaking out of his permitted questioning. The emotional charge that this scene releases is shocking when one considers the monotony of the premise.
In some ways, “Rise Up” is unbearably stark. The stage is dominated by the translucent, sterile box that houses Chike. The caretakers’ office holds video screens that display different angles of Chike’s box, merely retransmitting the monotony. Chike himself wears heather sweats and a shirt, possibly the most boring costume that could be devised. Even so, there are disorienting hints at a richness that exists somewhere offstage. Stam wears a dashing and dandified ensemble, and Enid’s style embodies what is surely the enviable coolness of a future age. Crossing onto the Spartan stage, their vibrant presence is striking.
The acting, too, equivocates between flat portrayals of the characters in the beginning and passionate ownership of the characters by the end. The opening scenes between Stam and Chike strike a superficial note, exacerbated by the unusual circumstances of their limited interaction. Teicheira’s Stam is depthless and unyieldingly mundane, while Verdery initially gives Chike a personality that seems a bizarre hybrid of an ornery 9-year-old and a Luddite recluse. It is only later that Teicheira and Verdery reveal the depth, complexity and fervor of both their characters. Stanton, when she enters the scene, is an admirable meta-actor: she portrays Enid as uninteresting and fairly lifeless in her interactions with Stam, but fills her out in scenes with Chike as the play progresses. Were it not for the unifying tension of the play, these deliberately conflicting and disorienting performances would be overwhelming.
Somewhere, however, the emotional investment sneaks in. Welch’s ear for language and feel for rhythm manages to turn tiresome repetition into actual engagement. Though the story is at first unapproachable and alienating — it is impossible to place in time or space, though it’s clearly sometime in the future — Welch manages to use that to his advantage. The situational disconnect between the characters ends up being the perfect background for the real human connections that exist between them. These, portrayed against the static and ultimately unexplained construct of the box, seize even the most unengaged viewer and veritably force them to feel what Welch wants them to.
By no means a “feel good” play, and not exactly satisfying, “Rise Up You Bloody Animals” is like an enemy’s personal tragedy — you feel for them, even if you don’t really want to.