S . . . N . . .

. . . W . . . B . . .

. . . U . . . N . . . D

The Collective

at Heartland Cafe Studio Theater

That the two one-acts being premiered by the Collective–particularly S . . . n . . .

. . . w . . . b . . .

. . . u . . . n . . . d–are compelling is, well, a bouquet. But what’s particularly attractive is the company’s energy. I haven’t seen anything quite this good in terms of raw talent since the Oobleck gang came to town a few years back.

Sure, some of the Collective’s ensemble members overacted a bit. And sometimes the direction, particularly in Explode, seemed a tad pretentious. But overall this company of mostly recent arrivals from Southern Methodist University provided a solid evening of engaging, intelligent theater.

Making their debut in the small, virtually naked Heartland Cafe Studio Theater, all of the actors were surprisingly good. But the men, Jason Blum and Joey Slotnick, were especially impressive. Performing multiple roles, the two excelled at finding each character’s essential gesture. These gestures were wonderfully nuanced, often self-effacing, and curiously familiar. During the course of the evening Slotnick went from mischievous to terrifying; Blum managed both naivete and a simmering sexuality.

Both the men and women worked together with a remarkable confidence for such a young group. They played off each other, to each other, and with each other. That Blum and Slotnick shone may have had more to do with opportunity–there were twice as many women onstage–than with any design to showcase them. Director Tim Johnson gave everybody a chance.

At first Stacia St. Owens’s Explode –a series of two-character vignettes about perception and miscommunication–seems rather simplistic. But its pairing with Snowbound lends it additional layers of meaning.

Each scene features one character trying to establish a connection with another, only to be misunderstood. In a matter of minutes the miscommunication becomes an unbridgeable chasm. The opening vignette features a woman who’s come to deliver a birthday present to a dear friend she hasn’t seen in years, but the friend has no clue who she is. When he finally confesses this, the woman is disbelieving, then embarrassed, and finally outraged.

Unfortunately, this is probably the strongest scene in the work, which never climaxes but keeps repeating the same tensions. The ending, which resembles an old Twilight Zone episode, is cliched and disappointing.

Each scene is anticipated by a freeze-frame pose with all sorts of props that signals, in some vague way, the motive underlying each little story. This is pretty silly, adds nothing, detracts from the stories, and creates a great deal of clutter on an already crowded tiny stage. The night I saw Explode the actors appeared unsure about these intros, and several cues were missed because of them, which gave the impression they were a last-minute add-on.

Still, it’s hard to imagine going into Snowbound, a nervy, uneven, machine-gun-paced script that explores an unending self-reflectivity, without a lead-in. Initially this second work may seem like improv, and that’s how parts were developed. But this monster is fully written out–a paradox, but charming.

Featuring Blum as a bewildered and bedeviled stage manager, Snowbound sets loose three fictional characters who rebel against the script they’re supposed to be following. No matter how hard he tries to get the characters on track, the stage manager can’t seem to do it. But instead of contemplating this dilemma with some Beckett-like conundrum about the dependency and tensions between actors and the characters they play, writer Matt Sciple decided to have fun.

The stage manager serves as the play’s nerve center–he’s the one who knows what’s supposed to be happening and who tries desperately to move the action in that direction. At first he reassures the audience that it will get its money’s worth of theater. However, as the characters become more unruly, he tries to frame their unpredictability as an asset, as a kind of theatrical relativity. Eventually he not only fails in his attempts to get on with reality, but also gets sucked into the fictional characters’ universe.

As in Explode, the scenes change with MTV rapidity, but the themes are darker, more disturbing. Just as one idea hits home, another is hurled out. At one point Slotnick, playing a rapist confronting his victim on national TV for the first time, tells her, “I showed you what it was like to be God.” The moment is chilling because he doesn’t say it defensively or angrily, but so matter-of-factly, so terribly smoothly.

Basically, both Explode and Snowbound pose questions about reality: How do we know? How can we tell? It is, I suppose, the perfect philosophical query for a young company. But this show was quite fun, and I’m looking forward to watching the Collective’s progress.