NOTE: This isn’t a proper review because I am not a proper critic. This is a loose collection of thoughts I had today after chewing on this play all night. So, I may not touch on everything in the play and I didn’t take notes while I watched it. If I get any plot points wrong, mea culpa.
The cool thing about being friends with lots of artists is every once in a while one of them will produce something that makes you go, “Oh yeah. I’m friends with freakin’ artists!”
Last night, I saw Mark Sweeney’s original musical The Unknown Matters – playing at HUGE Theater as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival – and it pretty much produced exactly that sort of reaction in me.
Mark, for those who don’t know him, is a creator. He itches to create. Spend more than a few minutes talking to him and the conversation will inevitably drift towards whatever projects he’s working on, or thinking of working on, or considering not working on anymore. He’s not self-centered; he simply worries about his projects like they’re his children at summer camp. And, like a good parent, he holds them to some pretty high standards.
I’ve had to good luck to collaborate with Mr. Sweeney on a couple of productions – I directed him in a musical in 2009 and collaborated with him on an original piece for the 2010 Fringe – so I have experienced first-hand these standards. He has a vision for everything he does. He has a goal. And, he pursues that goal with a single-mindedness of a predator and the focus of a really focused predator. Sometimes, he reaches his goal, and when he does he simply tacks on what today we would refer to as a “stretch goal.” It’s tiring, honestly, but that is what makes Mr. Sweeney such an exhilarating friend. And collaborator. And artist. He’s like a good road trip: he may wear you out, but at the end of the day you’ve gone somewhere really cool.
Spending 45 minutes watching The Unknown Matters is like spending four hours with Mark in the best way possible. If you know him, you hear his voice and feel his presence in every line and note of the script and score. If you don’t know him, it functions as an intimate look inside the head of a person with an engaging outlook on the world around him.
But, it’s not a solo piece. It’s a play. Or, a musical. Or, a play with music. Or, a mediation with ukulele. It’s also a comedy.
The plot . . . is ephemeral. I mean, it’s there. It exists. It’s clearly stated. But, it’s slippery. It shifts.
In short, two scientists (Mark Sweeney and Katie Bradley) are living in an abandoned underground lab which is being crowd-funded with the help of Bradley’s brother (Izzy Waid). Bradley is pursuing proof of the existence of potentially habitable exo-planets while Sweeney is seeking evidence of the existence of dark matter. Their pursuits are personal yet complimentary and their time together evolves into a playful routine. This is not a “romantic comedy” nor is it “science fiction.” Sweeney and Bradley’s relationship develops gently while the science fuels the narrative while never overwhelming the action. The two characters could be pursuing rare books, butterflies, health statistics, anything. As the story makes clear, what we pursue doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you are pursuing something.
And this is what begins to elevate the play beyond “speculative fiction” and into the realm of “personal narrative.” The frustration of the artist, the creator, plays out beautifully as Bradley and Sweeney interact across the HUGE Theater’s minuscule performing area. But, it is Sweeney’s frustration. It belongs to the writer. When he lifts his ukulele the first time and begins fingering a plaintive vamp, the tone of the show shifts inward and rests there for remainder of the story. What we witness takes on the form of a dream – the timeline jumps seemingly at random and Izzy Waid changes characters from scene to scene.
A quick note on Izzy Waid: he has the voice of a radio announcer and is about seven feet tall (more or less) but he manages to float in the background of scenes and appear seemingly at random from unexpected areas of the very small theater. Also, even at his most bombastic, Waid’s characters are engaged and engaging. He shares a brief beat with Bradley on one of his exits that is heartbreaking in its simplicity.
*BEGIN SPOILER* About halfway through the story, Sweeney’s character is put out of a commission by a mysterious illness that begins swelling his extremities. He is forced to leave the lab to pursue treatment at a hospital and his stay is repeatedly extended from days, to more days to weeks as doctors struggle to figure out his bizarre ailment. It’s a unique plot device that functions to isolate both of our main characters – allowing them to develop free from the direct influence of each other – while creating a harrowing journey for each of them. Bradley’s mind begins to slip a little and at one point hallucinates Sweeney’s presence while Sweeney begins to succumb to despair that his illness will ever be diagnosed and that he’ll ever leave the hospital.
The moment Sweeney notices the swelling in his leg is the moment The Unknown Matters stops being a play and starts being a heightened emotional experience. The reason for this is simple: the audience instantly becomes divided as effectively as if someone had slammed a wall down between both halves of the room.
Because those in the audience who know Mark Sweeney will recognize the symptoms of his own very personal and very public mysterious illness.
When you are friends with someone who has a disease – a disease requiring hospitalization, tests, and other unknown matters – it can sometimes take all of your energy to not grab them and hold them and demand they tell you everything they’re feeling and that they’re going to be okay. That they will continue and will always be the person you love and care about.
Whether he intended to or not, Mark has accomplished exactly that with The Unknown Matters. At the first mention of his swollen leg, Mark effectively steps off the stage, sits down next to you, takes your hand and guides you gracefully through his experiences, his feelings, his terrors and his insights. It’s breathtaking the ease with which he accomplishes this.
For those of us who know Mark, that is. I don’t know the effect this moment will have on everyone else, but I know it’s effective. And scary. There was an audible gasp in the audience the night I saw it – probably from friends – but the moment was shared. “Oh no,” we thought, “We’re about to see our friend in pain again.”
With this shift, the play stops being what it is about and starts being what Mark is about. Does that make sense? It stops being about two people in pursuit of the unknown and starts being about the pursuit of that which we do not know. It’s subtle. But, it’s distinct. *END SPOILER*
Did I mention this has ukulele songs all throughout it?!
Let’s not forget that Mark Sweeney is an accomplished musician. His songs are straightforward, something that, honestly, has bothered me in the past. Here, however, the repetitive themes and lyrics slide around the narrative, commenting on the action and being commented on by the action. Sweeney and Bradley’s voices blend gorgeously and at times Waid provides an ominous bass line that heightens the tension like a Herrmann score.
Oh, and Katie Bradley is incredible. Her manic performance rides the line between “deliberately quirky” and “realistically neurotic” quite well. She and Sweeney effortlessly connect and the story that passes between them every time they lock eyes could fill a hundred more Fringe shows.
Oh, and the use of silence is powerful.
Oh! And, the way the theme comes back around to and plays with the concept of waiting, is wonderful.
OH! And the writing on the wall –
And the use of movement to denote passage of time –
And the bittersweet ending –
The Unknown Matters moved me. It moved me as a friend, as an artist and as an audience member. I was actively jealous of how honest it was. Mark and Katie and Izzy should be proud of everything they’ve done.