Review – Shift – Jonas Goslow – 5 stars

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by Matthew A. Everett • August 5, 2008 • “Be careful of the ideas you encounter in your lives, children. Ideas will go to great lengths to ensure their survival.”

Damn.

Single White Fringe Geek (and Mom) is the blog of Matthew A. Everett, one of five bloggers covering the Minnesota Fringe Festival for the Daily Planet.

In “Shift,” actor Jonas Goslow portrays a second-grader, a cyber-terrorist, a man who comes unglued when his wife suddenly abandons him, and a teacher who has reached his wit’s end. Nick Ryan, the author of “Shift,” ties the seemingly disparate tales of those characters together into:
– an assault on the declining state of the American educational system
– humankind’s obsession with creating ever larger scientific marvels before it fully comprehends the implications and consequences of using them
– the ultimately unknowable mysteries of the human heart and its capacity for love and forgiveness.

Damn.

Unraveling a play like this is kind of like killing a joke by trying to explain why it’s funny. It works because all of the above is never stated flat out. The script makes its points by implication. The impact of those larger societal challenges on individuals we come to know and care about, often in spite of ourselves, makes the intellectual arguments into something solid – something with flesh and blood and bone.

The child who opens the play creates an elaborate adventure with his action figures and monsters and dinosaurs which turns out to be a cheeky exploration of scientists battling over the conflicting notions of evolution vs. creationism. The creationists are the heroes in this scenario (American), the evolutionists the villains (British). We also get a couple of other explorers of German and Asian descent, with Goslow going from childlike voice to the gallery of multiple accents with nary a stumble. It’s a deft piece of voice work keeping that juggling act and that story going at the same time. The characters of three grown men follow the child – each in their own way childlike themselves.

A teacher becomes so frustrated with the politics surrounding education – how it cuts funds and undercuts free thought and discussion – that he ends up railing about the complex injustices and power structures of the world, to a room full of second-graders. It’s a deliciously pointed and completely inappropriate rant, matched by an anonymous letter of rebuttal from a dissatisfied parent delivered to the classroom by one of the unseen children.

Members of the far flung cyber-collective The Hive plot to stop the activation of the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator on the border of Switzerland and France. The Hive is convinced that the LHC will unhinge the basic laws of physics to the point where the entire world’s population would be in danger. Dismissed as a bunch of slacker geeks by the media and the powers that be, The Hive proves surprisingly effective. Like everything else in the play, The Hive is never portrayed as entirely right or entirely wrong. The notions of good and bad, heroes and villains, are fluid things, and “Shift” is smart enough to play with this uncertainty. The members of The Hive are an unsettling bunch – in look, in attitude. More unsettling still is the idea that they might be correct.

The only quibble I’ve got with the production is in regard to the first introduction of the members of The Hive. Visually, the look is arresting – the bug eyes on a ski mask, the sudden random twitching of the actor’s body. But aurally, it was confusing because the voice was electronically distorted. In a short burst, that might work. But the vocal introduction went on for quite a stretch, imparting a high volume of important information, all of which was, honestly, really hard to make out. While you could piece it together later from fragments threaded throughout the rest of the story, I think the whole thing would have been much simpler and easier to track if we’d just gotten the information clearly the first time around. But that is, literally, the only thing I can find fault with in this otherwise faultless production.

The man who loses his wife was the most compelling for me. First, she disappears. Then, in his search for her, the man comes to realize just how completely he will lose her. Waiting for the finality granted to him only through a phone line, he reaches out to talk to people who are strangers to him, even if they live right across the hall. Giving his wife the distance she seems to need, the abandoned husband starts to regain his own footing, his identity separate from her. Even when she is truly gone, he still manages to reclaim her, through memories of her, shared with others. The man starts out seeming pathetic and desperate, until we understand the reasons for his desperation. Like the child, or The Hive, the weak man turns out to be far stronger and more in control than the audience first imagines him.

The fact that all these characterizations, that all these plotlines, loop back in on one another, and create a snapshot encompassing the web of knowledge, technology, politics and love that bind the world together, is stunning. It happens in broad, sweeping strokes, as well as the slenderest of connecting threads (one especially nice touch, the name of the missing wife, and the section of the Large Hadron Collider breached by The Hive, are both the same – Alice). Both the script, and the production of it, are something I’m still teasing apart in my head days later. I’ll probably be dissecting “Shift” for days to come. A fellow audience member commented that they want to get a copy of the script so they can study it. I’d second that strategy. Though the production itself is a complete experience, it also feels like something that rewards further contact with further insights.

It’s not just an intellectual exercise. It’s not just a comedy. It’s not just an adventure. It’s not just an unusual love story. It’s not just a satire. It’s all these things. It’s why “Shift” is a show I want to see again – a rarity at Fringe time, or any other time of year.

If you like “Shift,” you’ll probably also enjoy Nick Ryan’s other two scripts in the Fringe this year – “Mortem Capiendum” for Four Humors at the Rarig Center Thrust stage (already an out-of-town hit at other Fringes), and “The Spaceman Chronicles” for Sanguine Theater at Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

Damn.

Very Highly Recommended

Remaining performances –
Bryant Lake Bowl
TONIGHT – Tuesday, August 5th, 6pm
Thursday, August 7th, 8pm
Sunday, August 10, 12pm

Entering his sixth year of blogging about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and bringing Mom along for the ride as a guest reviewer), Matthew A. Everett is also a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.