A giant melting clock, right out of Dali’s painting “The Persistence of Memory,” sets the stage for “Once Five Years Pass,” a play by Federico García Lorca and translated by director Gary Jaffe ’10. This image becomes the play’s dominant theme, as Jaffe brings this disturbing, confusing and intriguing world to life.

Working off of the play’s subtitle, “A Legend of Time in Three Acts,” Jaffe uses an icon of timelessness that recalls Lorca and Dali’s artistic and personal relationship. However, while the time at which Lorca was writing is quite different from our own, the event of the play is not so distant. The archetypal plot, characters and settings free the play from having any clear historical meaning. Rather, this play suffers — or maybe benefits — from its unclear timing, which allows the audience to experience it in its own time, if only it can figure out how.

The premise of the play — and I hesitate to say plot — centers around the “Young Man” (Bobby Foley ’10), who insists on waiting five years to marry his fiancé (Adriel Saporta ’11). The play begins with the Foley’s character speaking to an “Old Man” (Rafael Kern ’11) who encourages the Young Man’s seclusion, enabling him to keep a constant internal image of her. Yet this love is based on a relationship that has no basis in a world that does not always work out according to plan.

All of the actors, except the Young Man, play multiple parts — an impressive feat given that most of these characters are types, and therefore require extreme transformations. Will Turner’s ’11 “First Friend,” “Football Player” and “Clown,” O’Hagan Blades’ ’10 “Cat,” “Maid,” and “Mask,” and Jacob Liberman’s “Servant,” “Harlequin,” and “Father,” stand out — as all three actors skillfully and humorously change physically to fit their new roles, while maintaining a strong inner consistency. In one of the most powerful scenes, between the Secretary (Erin Capistrano ’10) and the Mask, Blades manages to convey her essential loneliness and desperation behind a white mask, with her hair pulled up at least a foot in air. Blades describes her distant relationship with her lover in front of the Secretary, repeatedly shouting “I do not love you,” as she is unable to confront him directly.

All of these actors seem to understand their unique thematic significance in the play, however, putting these characters together into a coherent story is quite difficult. The physical and emotional distance between characters made it hard to understand how they relate to each other. The frightening interplay between two characters — a dead cat and a dead child, both hiding from their inevitable burial — is enchanting, but awkwardly placed against the domestic, seemingly real time of the beginning of the play.

But, this initial confusion ultimately makes the play more powerful. As “Once Five Years Pass” progresses, the audience begins to see the cast of characters more deeply, and their contradictions start fitting together. They all form a part of the Young Man’s complex inner life — representing his fears, desires, memories and dreams.

“Once Five Years Pass” has its own rules of time and place, in which everything fits together, but does not necessarily have a clear “meaning.” The elements on stage do not reach concrete or rational destinations, but coexist in an endless, complicated and irrational present.

The play ends with the poignant representation of a Young Man’s unfulfilled life flowing out of his chest as a long red ribbon, which is literally and inexplicably cut short. The Young Man’s passing is juxtaposed with the spoken message — “You can’t wait. You have to live” — which forces the audience to confront its own inevitable end. This finally pulls the play and the audience together into a surreal and yet deeply moving space.

However, rather than offering a clear message of just how one should “live,” watching this play is more like looking at a painting. It invites the viewer to enter and experience a very different type of world, one with its own version of reality. This play is filled with dream-like devices — masks, music, myth, poetry, fluid sets, ribbons and strong, solid colors. In the time and space of the theater, this invisible world takes on a physical reality, letting the audience experience a timeless and spaceless inner life. But in physical form, this invisible world envelops the audience in its own state of irrationality and confusion.

Overall, the mysterious spectacle of the play shows the Young Man and the audience the complexity, irrationality and beauty of the “most intimate regions of ourselves,” as Jaffe says in his Director’s Note. This setting, like the play, is timeless — and thus, even now, far distant from Lorca’s war-ridden fascist Spain, it is certainly possible that this play can touch a Yale student’s inner life. If you can manage to break into its impossibly far-away world, you might just find that it is closer than you think.

“Once Five Years Pass” is playing this weekend at the Whitney Theater on Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. Reservations can be made by e-mailing ofypatyale@gmail.com .