Like a chunk of green cheese with an emerald inside, this meditation on the power of imagination contains a hard, bright nugget.
Mare Cognitum follows three twenty-somethings reliving the wide-eyed excitement of intellectual discovery they experienced in college. Or rather, that's what the playwright himself, David McGee, seems to be indulging in.
There's promise in his effective opening scene, and dramatic flair in several other segments along the way. At the start, Lena (Devon Caraway) and Jeff (Kyle Thomas) can't see eye to eye about whether they should bother joining the anti-war protest marching past their apartment building. Jeff decries the crowd's lack of focus; Lena, too, casts a critical eye, but feels an urge to join her own passion to the masses'. Their compromise involves protesting at home without merging with the mob; "Nobody's listening to them either," sighs the withdrawn, Hamlet-like Kyle, "and at least we'll be warm."
Though the dialogue feels a little bloated, the actors' precise delivery and director Jesse Edward Rosbrow's smart staging keep the scene moving well. But when the third roommate, Thomas (Justin Howard), arrives home, ostensibly from a job interview, the play bogs down in a repetitious and overlong discussion of (Doubting) Thomas's nihilism and atheism.
When the friends act out the job interview, it's the first instance of a role-playing trick that works better during a few later scenes, when it's used more crisply to turn the living room into a classroom and (too much later) a rocket ship. The interview itself turns out to have been something else entirely; Thomas has been keeping a secret from his friends, a secret which leads to more college-coffeehouse discussion but little character development. Though poor vexed Thomas seems at first to be going against character to seek some kind of enlightenment, when the chance comes for him to really engage his imagination he retreats. He's a tragic character in this sense, yet at the end he's right back where he started — just a guy looking for a job, not sure yet what he wants to do with his life.
The play's problem is that not enough happens. The characters' exchange of ideas can't carry 90 minutes of drama. When something does occur — notably, Lena's spiritual awakening, and at the end, a half-real trip to the Moon — the production springs to life. Lena's description of her church visit is a fine piece of writing, and Ms. Caraway brings it home brilliantly. It's one of the periods of focus that represent the promise of the play, which, tightened up, could be a powerful piece of theater.
Mr. Rosbrow, the director, cannot be much faulted for the play's problems, and the cast and crew are very good. Mr. Walters' Jeff sulks and whines a lot, sometimes becoming tiresome, but at certain moments he holds tension like a grieving tiger, switching personae with ferocity when the grudging script gives him the chance. For her part, Ms. Caraway's sharp, exhilarating performance is worth the price of admission; she's fixedly present at all times, making it hard to look away from her.
Yet even when the playwright has focused his intentions and brought us someplace exciting, he tries his best to sabotage the mission by inserting a squabble about the sexist nature of language ("one giant leap for mankind"). The actors, and the rest of the talent involved in this production, are too good for that.
Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear, which is presenting Mare Cognitum in repertory at the Workshop Theater through May 30, is an amalgam of three erstwhile companies: Theatre of the Expendable, Small Pond Entertainment, and Cross-Eyed Bear Productions. They have not only joined forces, but taken the risky step of ditching their individual company names to create the new, combined group, which is sharing costs, space, and design teams. This production is part of GET S.O.M.!, their first repertory effort. It’s a promising start; I’ll be reporting on the other two productions soon.