Photo by Daniel J. Vasquez

What’s the difference between someone who has “limited” choices (or who makes bad choices due to lack of guidance, be it parental, educational, or societal) and a person who hasn’t the agency of choice at all? What does it look like to have no choice?

In Jonathan Payne’s unique and mindful play The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d, running at The Duke on 42nd Street through October 6th in a Playwright’s Realm production, we’re confronted both by power of and absence of choice. In the case of Terrell, a foster kid who’s gone missing in a fictional inner-city described as “an island isolated by poverty” called the Oblong, it’s manifested as a literal absence. He has so little choice over how his story is told that he doesn’t even get to appear onstage. Karma, his foster sister (played by an unyieldingly charismatic Kara Young), at least gets to make one choice – she’s gonna look for him when no one else will.

Because Payne largely avoids the “why” in this choice (after all, Terrell doesn’t seem to have mentioned Karma to anyone that she meets in her quest), he allows us to turn our focus on a journey made more stark, less colored by characters (and their choices) as much as by an ever-hardening societal inevitability. Karma gets a little closer with each encounter, and some clues turn into empty solutions – for example, the wanted posters that she’s been putting up turn out to have been torn down by Terrell himself, who doesn’t want to be found for reasons we’ll learn in the final scene. It’s clear rather early on that this will be a doomed mission, yet Payne keeps his audience from jumping ahead to any particular conclusion by deploying a second (bigger, metatheatrical) frame around Karma’s story, one in which the house lights keep coming up and we are rendered, without a choice, visible – to the actors, to the audience, and (most disturbingly) to ourselves.

One advantage to writing about a show after it’s been running for awhile is that one has an opportunity to review what other writers have commented on. The critic Jesse Green, for the New York Times, makes the claim that this second frame ultimately undermines the production, and while I won’t fully disagree – there are certainly some elements about it that don’t serve the work as a whole – I would argue that it’s the deployment of a metatheatrical frame that allows the play to do something that many issue-related plays fail to do. Rather than to speak to, at, or past the audience, this frame allows Payne the opportunity to speak with.

Time and time again, we are exposed but then given choices – sometimes the actors underline that we don’t have to stay, we don’t have to give to the actors who are currently soliciting us for money (it happens twice), we don’t have to care, or participate. The play doesn’t even ask us to fully understand. Payne keeps feeding various arguments that are presented ‘on the behalf of the audience’ into the mix in order to subtly challenge and sometimes subvert a previous argument, which makes the play feel like a conversation that everyone can (choose to) mentally participate in. By participating, we are then drawn closer into the world that Payne has rendered in close detail, a world that many of us generally ignore. Payne manages to both confront and complicate at the same time, and that alone (no small feat) justifies his usage of the meta-frame device, even if it doesn’t pay as many dividends in terms of delivering story as per our usual demands.

The bulk of the issues on the story-telling level arise from the presence of a character named Madame Profit (pronounced, as she tells us at every opportunity, Pro-fee. But we know she knows better.) This is an interesting problem for the play to have, because it’s through the Madame that Payne is able to quickly and efficiently establish his secondary frame. It’s in her world that we exist as an audience, and she has the power to tell other characters (at least some of them) when they’re allowed to see us, talk with us. That she can do that is vital to understanding who and how we exist within the larger ecosystem of the play, and so she must be in the play as well as outside of it. But as she straddles that line, it gets harder and harder to invest dramatically in her scenes, which are mostly cut-aways from the Karma quest that don’t necessarily add much content. Built with cynical satire, her presence also removes another choice that we like to imagine that we have – that instead of engaging directly with the issue, we can just give money to the causes that support inner-city youth and fight poverty. Payne presents Madame Profit as the gatekeeper to those gifts, a stone-cold grifter, diverting all the resources that are given to help the community before it has a chance to ever reach the community. She might deserve a whole play to herself (and makes that exact argument in the play she’s currently in), but something about her doesn’t align here, creating a sort of out-of-rhythm feeling whenever she’s holding forth. It’s also possible that the production simply ran out of time to fully integrate her, leaving her more on the outside than the inside, and a subsequent production might be able to solve this simply through performance elements.

The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d is also, all the more unexpectedly in the late summer heat which I wandered through to get to it, a Christmas story. In one of the more successful breaks of the fourth wall that I’ve seen, the actor Kenneth Tigar, as a police office, encounters Karma alone in the early morning holiday-barren streets and begins to question her before stopping, stepping out of his light, and addressing the audience. He is in darkness for a little while before the lighting designer “decides” to take the house up again so we can all see him – “Thank you!” Tigar responds. He then proceeds to tell us that he hates this scene, that he thinks the scene and the officer are suspect, too broad, a cardboard cutout of what they might otherwise be, and then walks us through the decisions that he’s made for his character, even though we’ll never see any evidence of these in the scene itself.

It’s Jonathan Payne, of course, who is actually telling us all this. But Tigar is so utterly convincing and committed to his role, which is – at the moment – actor gone rogue, that it works both ways. And in that spirit of duality, once the scene picks back up and delivers us back to the cold predawn Christmas streets of the Oblong, one suddenly gets a sense of what perfect balance for the play as a whole might be. You can almost feel the frost-bitten wind, even while in the theater, even while minding what the playwright had just whispered to us – we’re gifted the decision in that moment to watch the play unfold one way or all ways at once. Yet, our seemingly limitless ways of watching are still bound up in the inevitable, as the final moment of the play crushes that into something tight and savage, and lets us sit with what it feels like to have no choice at all.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: