“The whole show can fit into an overhead compartment,” director Michael McQuilken says, referring to “A Day in Dignation,” a sketch opening this weekend at the Yale Cabaret. And indeed, the show’s physical bulk is limited to one short and skinny actor — Rex (Will Connolly) — and a projector loaded with a few CDs.
This minimal arsenal blasts forth a streak of visual and emotional intensity in an unconventional mode of presentation. The show consists of Connolly interacting with streaming digital sets projected onto a screen behind him and synchronizing his actions with a series of sound-effects and voice-overs. The flowing vibrancy of the two-dimensional projection creates for the audience a stunning immersion effect, the result of an innovative form of display used to its fullest.
In terms of creativity, the presentation outshines the content. The sketch is a psychological portrait of a man who, much in contrary to his childhood musical ambitions, finds himself in a boring office job. According to McQuilken, the show is meant to examine what happens “when your life has become different from what you dreamed of as a child and you medicate that with modern media, [and] how it affects the way you interact with people.”
The frustration of an office drone is an over-played concept, but “A Day in Dignation” distinguishes itself by forcing on its audience a visceral connection to this conceptual underpinning. This comes partially through the visual and auditory impact of the digital set, which works excellently for a show about over-absorption in media, but also through Connolly’s galvanizing performance as Rex, the show’s single live-acted character. Connolly looks the part with his small, wiry frame and electrically expressive face, perfect for appearing rapt with the media offerings among which Rex hides from reality.
In one of the play’s earlier portions (“scene” might be too formal a word to impose on such an unconventional structure), Rex dreams about being trapped alone in a post-apocalyptic bunker, trying to make contact with another “functional dweller.” When a woman responds to Rex’s radio signal, Rex finds himself too anxious to speak with her in more than stutters, and I found myself desperately willing Rex to communicate. In this sense, the show does its job — it emotionally links you to one of its key messages regarding the alienation of those who live too entirely in media-generated fantasy. Although the show is largely an investigation of anxiety, it is extremely funny, notably during one of Rex’s dreams, in which he imagines himself working as a waiter and using ninja moves to fend off the snootiness of a customer.
The show is especially relevant in a world in which, as Connolly puts it, “the iPhone is getting smaller and smaller every year — there are newer, better, faster ways to connect with the media, to lock yourself in this world with electronic appliances.” But the sketch has broader applicability for any daydreamer who chooses fantasy, whether drawn from the media or not, over reality. I am not a media or pop-culture whore, and the show affected me viscerally.
The sketch has quite an interesting history. McQuilken co-wrote the script with a friend while somewhat living out the starving artist ideal that fructifies one of Rex’s fantasies. It was originally performed, though in a very different form, several years ago in an abandoned warehouse in Seattle, Washington, which McQuilken had found and fixed up. Since that time, it has indeed been “stowed away” in overhead compartments and put on in Prague, Amsterdam and Edinburgh, among other U.S. and foreign locations.