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Haze at Intersection for the Arts

A Fresh Rejoinder to Experimental Drama

The stage is dark and the atonal rhythms of a mildly eerie soundscape float out to the audience before a wash of light spatters, turn by turn, four performers slumped against the walls, who each utter a phrase that's either cryptic or equivocal, before the action commences. From my personal experience with theatre, this is the kind of enigmatic kickoff that could precede either a poorly rendered performance piece, or a fresh rejoinder to experimental drama. Thankfully, Campo Santo's production of Haze -- a loosely connected series of aphoristic vignettes by four contemporary authors -- went for the latter.

Haze, which stemmed from theater company Campo Santo's collaboration with four of the nation's hottest writers, is a piece that combines the episodic backbone of the short story and the dramatic pacing of theatre to spin insular musings into a fascinating performance. Perhaps the reason the performance is so captivating is the conversational idiom of each of the pieces (written by Vendela Vida, Dave Eggers, Junot Diaz, and Denis Johnson), which never feels dull or forced, and translates seamlessly to director Sean San Jose's immaculate staging.

Essentially, the pieces are loose mutations on the stories, which cover the desperate and "hazy" terrain of meaning and morality. The characters range from a rehab patient who pens angry epistles to Satan; a woman besieged by post-traumatic stress disorder after a peculiar brush with death; a neurotic young man coping with his cousin's serial suicide attempts; and a man mourning the demise of his relationship after cheating on his girlfriend.

Author Vendela Vida's "What Happens When These Things Happen" is the first and most haunting piece in the performance: an associative, stream-of-consciousness rumination of a woman thinking back on the experience of being held up at gunpoint in a seemingly innocuous setting -- a park. The incomparable Catherine Castellanos, a Campo Santo favorite, saltily recites the quiet insanity of the situation, occasionally going off on tangents about past boyfriends and other irrelevant matters that actually serve to underscore the vivid power of memory. Anna Maria Luera, who plays Castellanos' character at the time of the experience, beautifully counters the impending possibility of death by reciting the works of famous poets to the man (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) who picks her out of a crowd by deciding that he wants to die but doesn't want to do it alone. Despite the humor of the interaction, the surreal horror of the situation mounts and unravels, as bucolic images of spinning park foliage crackle against the back wall in an eerie juxtaposition of innocence and danger.

The next story, "Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance" is by Dave Eggers (Vida's husband). The piece is a sort story about Fish (played by Danny Wolohan), a self-obsessed man who pays his suicide-prone cousin Adam (played by Lacy) a visit in the hospital while attempting to make sense of both Adam's senseless behavior and his own meaningless life. In general, Eggers' musings are arbitrary and peripheral, tending to forego true substance for witty but essentially vacuous snippets. I surmise that "Climbing to the Window" is probably more effective on stage than paper, due to Wolohan's humorous yet sympathetic performance. Wolohan is the most vigorous actor in the troupe, spinning a mordant and bitter narrative that's full of hostile charm and pure frenetic energy.

Junot Diaz's "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" is perhaps the piece least related to the other stories by virtue of its buoyant tone. Throughout Haze, characters shape-shift and stories meld effortlessly into each other; and the characters in each piece become believable vestiges of hidden characters from the other stories. Not so with Diaz's vignette. While he crafts a comical and credible portrait of a relationship teetering on the brink of destruction due to Yunior's (played by Lacy) infidelity to his girlfriend (played by Luera), the interaction between the characters feels tepid and long drawn out.

The final piece, "The Starlight on Idaho," by Denis Johnson, provides a lingering denouement. Johnson is a consummate poet and novelist who weaves passionate conceits about the spiritual bankruptcy of modern life. His piece a brief character sketch about madness and redemption -- focusing on the zealously scribbled letters from a man in rehab (Wolohan in another arresting performance) to Satan -- and seethes with the blood-soaked heat and imagery of contemporary American gothic. Joshua McDermott's lurid lighting and David Molina's elastic sound design spin vertiginously around Wolohan, who froths at the mouth about paying for his sins, bringing to mind the claustrophobia of a subterranean chamber of dread lit by a single swinging bulb.

Overall, while most of the assembled pieces (with the exception of Eggers') are perhaps more extraordinary and intact on the page than on the stage, the sum proves itself to be better than its parts. While Haze may have benefited from intentional coherence -- it's more of a collage than a narrative, a textured experiential tableau of the pain, desperation, and accidental calamities that are at the heart of existence. After such an auspicious collaboration, I'm curious to see which team of writers Campo Santo decides to take on in the future. I certainly have recommendations of my own, if anyone's interested.

Runs through April 29 at Intersection for the Arts
Tickets: $9-20