Just when you think you've seen it all as a theater critic, along comes something like Erik Ehn's new play, Little Rootie Tootie.
This is the sort of show that I usually have little patience for: a piece that uses language as much for its sound as for its meaning, that abandons a traditional structure for a seemingly arbitrary collection of images, characters, and ideas, that turns and twists on itself in an attempt to refuse giving itself over to a clear message. It's confusing, it's self-conscious, and it makes no logical sense.
But there's no denying that something about it works.
Little Rootie Tootie
Annex Theater until September 12
First, the plot of this plotless play: Kit (Tikka Sears) is hiding out with her boyfriend, Ivo (Paul Budritis), and telling him about the lineage of her child, Little Rootie Tootie, named after her absent boyfriend Rudy (Ron Darling), who's trapped in a phone booth. As the mysterious Chiefs—all outfitted like policemen but somehow something else—close in on her, she escapes to band practice with her friends Darla (Sara Karl) and Laura (Chantal Tyler).
Soon she's off again, to speak with the visionary Drum (Doug Rosson), who is indeed linked to a drum, both a drum that hangs like the moon and the drum she herself plays (the latter contains, at least briefly, the child Rootie, who's hydrocephalic but possessed of amazing powers). In the meantime, policeman Cyrus (Yusef Lambert) has lost his teeth to Ivo, who bites and infects him with his own demonic dentures. After being judged by the Chiefs, Cyrus is consigned to a sort of death ritual from which he emerges much more powerful. Indeed, he scarcely seems to notice the efforts of his wife to find him, and conquers his one-time judges by injecting some kielbasas with his own blood and forcing them to eat.
I get more than a little lost here, despite having the playscript by my side. Cause and effect and character are the things that Ehn is least interested in making clear. Instead, we have the careful creation of a series of moments, each one built from dialogue, image, and ritual. Themes run through scenes without conscious elucidation: the destructive power of hunger, the corruption and subjugation of authority, the apparent freedom but ultimate illusion of escape.
Ehn pulls off these moments partly through the unfaltering devotion of director Ken Judy's efforts and partly through a cast that seems convinced they know what they're doing—even if it's entirely unclear to the rest of us. Aiding these combined efforts is Ehn's language, which, even when it abandons sense altogether for sound, somehow asserts its own poetic integrity.
The trouble is, all of these moments—occurring sometimes as rapidly as individual frames in a film—never accumulate toward something greater. They remain isolated in their effect and purpose, filling the mind with an image before abandoning it for the next snapshot. And this goes on for 90 minutes.
Ehn makes it clear fairly early that if we're looking for logical sense, we've come to the wrong place. This is a show that insists on the primacy of the instinctive, the half-known, the felt. But in the end, Little Rootie Tootie left me with little in the way of feeling, except for the gnawing feeling that I'd missed something, not worked quite hard enough, not ever relaxed sufficiently into the wordplay and phantasmagoria. It's as frustrating as a half-remembered dream that you're certain came close to teaching you something, but from which you awoke too soon.