How well do you know your neighbors? There’s a little bit of the voyeur in all of us — and there always has been. Though it might stun the generation that can’t remember a pre-online world, people have spied, snooped, gossiped about and ruthlessly inventoried those who lived around them ever since the first cave-dweller condo association was formed.
With modern technology, however, some of the ways we keep tabs on our neighbors have changed — and gotten easier. In “T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common,” which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, a young woman we know only as “Kid” chronicles the goings-on around her in the tight San Francisco quarters she shares with her neighbors by writing a tell-all blog and training surveillance cameras on them.
Director J. Daniel Herring and a hard-working (and not always clothed) cast of Fresno State students have a lot of fun with this production, and they get points for gutsiness. The staging is clever and thoughtful, the production design is full of spark, and the cast fully embraces playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s eccentric characters.
As for the play itself — it’s weird, wacky and often quite amusing. But it’s also disjointed and gimmicky, and I just don’t think it holds together all that well in terms of structure and tone.
When it comes to play selection, I’ve criticized Fresno State’s theater department in the past for, well, living in the past. So it’s heartening to see the university tackle a newer work such as “Trenchcoat,” a 2009 unpublished offering from Nachtrieb, whose breakthrough hit “Hunter Gatherers” in 2006 has been followed by well-received later work, including this year’s “BOB” at the Humana Festival of New American Plays and “Litter: The True Story of the Framingham Dodecutuplets” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre.
This is only the second production staged of “Trenchcoat” after its world premiere almost three years ago by San Francisco’s Encore Theater Company.
And there’s no question that “Trenchcoat” pushes the envelope for Fresno State in terms of content. (There’s an advisory for adult content and language and nudity.) If you’re the type who frowns upon too much hanky panky in, say, “Romeo and Juliet,” you’ll probably want to avoid this title.
Kid (played by Kelsey C. Oliver) introduces us to the “T.I.C.” — which stands for Tenancy in Common, a peculiar San Francisco real-estate legal agreement that approximates condo ownership in a building — through her blog, where she spills out her resentments about having to move in with her sperm-donor father (Matthew Rudolph Schiltz), whom she barely knows. Bored and sullen, she starts describing the antics of her new neighbors.
There’s Claudia (Taylor Abels), an aging hippie pothead. Shye (Dane Oliver) is an angry young rocker. Sabra (Kia Vassiliades) has just arrived from Boston and cries all the time. And in a nod to old-school voyeurism, Terrence (Myles Bullock) tromps around wearing nothing but a trenchcoat. Can full-scale flashing be far behind?
Add to these six additional characters — called “icon manipulators” by Herring. Dressed in standard stage “invisible black,” they’re an intriguing directorial choice not called for in the script. One function they fulfill is that of Internet metaphor. (When you want something online, you click and it appears.) When Kid writes in her blog that she ate beef, her icon manipulator is there to provide it on a platter. Rather than using technology to illustrate technology, say, Herring uses old-fashioned people power. It’s an effective theatrical technique.
It turns out another useful function of the icon manipulators — who are each assigned to one of the characters but sometimes pitch in for group work — is to offer a playful physicality to the production. Nachtrieb suggests in his open-ended stage directions that the play has a vaudeville feel, and the black-clad mimes on stage certainly support that approach.
Whether that vaudeville tone works overall is the major question, however, and I’d argue that it doesn’t. As the play morphs from a simple recitation of Kid’s blog to a quasi-murder mystery — and then edges into a cliffhanger scene that gently mocks ultra San Francisco liberalism — it loses both its caustic-social-commentary edge and also its comic-dramatic bite.
The vaudevillian emphasis makes it harder for actors to flesh out interesting characters. That’s the case with the enthusiastic Bullock, who comes across too early and often as cartoonish. Most successful are Abels — a terrific Claudia, especially in a scene when she climbs in Kid’s window and confronts her — and Schiltz, who finds a lot of interesting depth in the nebbish father. Dane Oliver and Kia Vassiliades have some nice moments with their eccentric characters.
I kept wanting stronger direction for Kelsey C. Oliver in the leading role of Kid in terms of finding nuance and simple variety from the sullen routine.
Overall, however, the show has a forward-thinking, shiny flair. One of the production’s strengths is its visuals. Jeff Hunter’s massive, laptop-inspired set is given depth and dazzle by Izzy Einsidler’s lighting design, and Lauren Mead’s costume design is fresh and contemporary without being too obvious. Herring’s staging creates some memorable moments, from the innovative way that characters climb in and out of windows to a slow-motion approximation of a video. (Skylar Montierth and Walter Teng’s accomplished sound design is critical to that scene as well.)
And what of the theme of spying on one’s neighbors? People figure out ways to use new technology to accomplish age-old impulses, after all. Add to that the fact that basically we’re all “voyeurs” when going to the theater, and “T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common” becomes eye-opening, indeed.