By Frank Ceruzzi; Directed by Janet Bentley
Produced by Broadway Bound Theatre Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.17.19
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Ed Malin on 8.15.19
Coltrane Gilman in Round Went the Wheel. Photo by Emily Hewitt.
BOTTOM LINE: In a future where the threat and temptation of technology have been taken away, there are those who will fight for a different future.
What is our species going to do when the healing power of technology becomes a danger? What if we were all plugged into a big virtual reality network that gave us everything we needed and made it unnecessary for us to leave our homes? But what if this network then launched drones to destroy organic life, and so someone figured out a way to turn off the tech and move everything back to basics? That seems to be what has happened in the world of Round Went the Wheel, a poetic new play by Frank Ceruzzi.
We mostly see events that take place a few years into the analog lifestyle to which humans have now reverted: David (Rafael Jordan) takes a break from caring for his ill wife Eloise (Christina Toth) to go for a government interview. He must fill in forms by hand, in triplicate, because few machines are allowed. In a waiting room dominated by a clock and sliding doors (set design by Daniel Patrick Hogan), David meets the elderly Anton (Michael Gnat), the alternative Marta (Marie Eléna O’Brien) and the inquisitive Dake (Victor Chen). All seek to meet with “Him”—the teenage leader of the revolution. In this world order, even young children like Marta’s daughter (Oriah Elgrabli) live only wishing to serve the government. Meanwhile, Eloise’s friend Katherine (Moira McAuliffe) visits Eloise, who is pregnant and has chosen not to tell her husband. Katherine knows that a new group of revolutionaries, bent on bringing back machines, are amassing in a nearby park.
The most compelling part of the story, for me, is that this retro-revolution was accomplished single-handedly by "Him"—a twelve-year-old boy (Coltrane Gilman). Occasionally parts of this backstory are revealed, usually through references to famous poetry and graphic art, such as Bruegel’s painting of the unwanted tech guru Icarus. Symbols such as a forbidden apple or an illegal laptop hint at the temptation some people still have to live electronically. Eventually, as the machines power up again (lit by dazzlingly ethereal video and projections courtesy of the Roly Polys), “He” is confronted by the others, each of whom has had time to consider which side of the conflict they're on. But who will survive the armed showdown, and for what kind of future do they hope, in this brave new world revisited?
Frank Ceruzzi has delved into the enduring question of why being human is a reward in itself. Shouldn’t humans talk to each other face to face—friend to friend, parent to child—in peace? This stuff of graphic novels and anime is now on stage thanks to the Broadway Bound Festival. Director Janet Bentley elicits some remarkable performances from the multi-generational cast. You might be able to visualize the younger actors Gilman and Elgrabli leading a revolution. As Anton, who can remember a time before any of the pervasive technology, Gnat reminds us that we have a choice as to how much time we spend online. Jordan and Chen give the show much earnestness, while Toth, McAuliffe, and O’Brien are delightful as secret agent types. Cat Fisher's costumes suggest the way the near future may wish to remember our age. Mike Schultz’s lighting reminds us to keep hope alive.
(Round Went the Wheel plays at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through August 17, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tue 8/13 at 5, Wed 8/14 at 8, and Sat 8/17 at 5. Tickets are $27 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit broadwayboundfestival.com.)
Round Went the Wheel is by Frank Ceruzzi. Directed by Janet Bentley. Set Design by Daniel Patrick Hogan. Lighting Design by Mike Schulz. Sound, Music, and Video Design by The Roly Polys (Janet Bentley and Andy Evan Cohen). Costume Design by Cat Fisher. Stage Manager is Adam Sherwin. Assistant Stage Manager (and offstage voice) is Justyn Wade.
The cast is Victor Chen, Oriah Elgrabli, Coltrane Gilman, Michael Gnat, Rafael Jordan, Moira McAuliffe, Marie Eléna O'Brien, and Christina Toth.