holding pattern

both hands theatre company
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Nov. 17

A children’s theater piece for adults: It’s clear from the start this is what both hands theater offers in its current staging of Nicole Quenelle’s new play, holding pattern. Actually, make that “before the start” instead, since the first inkling of what’s to come (and how it’s coming) is handed to us with the show’s program in the Manbites Dog Theater lobby, before the show.

If the friendly, large-type fonts and drawings on the program’s cover don’t immediately suggest an educational children’s book, the text on the opening page that details how, once upon a time, two “happy little trolls” started an acting company called both hands theatre removes all doubt.

From the pre-show fun and games on stage, children’s theater is telegraphed in the deliberately exaggerated aestheticsin voices, emotional responses and movementsthat director Cheryl Chamblee employs with her actors, usually in amusing enough fashion. Stacks of thick used tires define and surround a racetrackand, more than possibly, the rutin which the play’s three central characters find themselves. (Indeed, the schism between the uncredited set design, Allyn Meredith’s absurd costuming and Jonathan Blackwell’s rough-sketch full-sized cartoon figures suggests an unlikely cross between NASCAR and the Cabaret Voltairewith a little of The Simpsons added for good measure.)

The irony seems obvious: No matter how fast the roller-skated Girl Who Blows Bubbles (an engaging Meredith Sause), the Man Who Eats Nuts (Tekay) or the grumpy Man Who Plays Accordion Tunes (the sharp-eyed Laurie Wolf) circumnavigate the track, no one here is really getting anywhere. Each is stuck in his or her own life, as are the conjoined triplets that make up the Girl’s own personal Greek chorus (Byron Jennings II, Beth Popelka and Thaddaeus Edwards).

Though the Girl tries to play well with others, it’s not the easiest thing to do when her companions are so self-obsessed: One can’t plan much further than eating his next orange marshmallow peanut, while the other’s accordion always hangs on the third line of “You Are My Sunshine.” None of them seem able to help themselves or each other.

All of which would tend to make holding pattern one of those didactic, problem-solving, “after-school special” sort of playswhich is, in fact, exactly what it turns out to be. That outcome is somewhat surprising: Repeatedly through the production, Quenelle doesn’t just appear to give a series of knowing, ironic nods to the conventions of self-help narratives. She repeatedly seems to mock them outright. Sause’s Girl tells us how she wishes this piece were about “how she overcame and started a brand new life,” in which everyone ultimately says “but didn’t you know it all along, what a rock you are,” after the heroine is magically granted “new shoes and self-esteem.” Only after a long moment’s pause does the Girl then say, “But this is not that story.”

Anne Sexton’s Transformationsthat amazing volume of re-envisioned fairy taleshad this kind of wit. It also had the insight to recognize, as the Chorus later does, that the Girl’s experiences didn’t just make her mad in the head: “Her whole body was mad.”

In short, Quenelle seems too smart to fall into the comforting babble of the culture’s biggest traveling medicine show: psychotherapy by proxy (and Oprah and Dr. Phil and far too many others). Until, that is, it appears that she does.

People do get stuck in their own lives. And it can be exceedingly hard to tell one’s own story, particularly when that story has any element of damage in it.

Quenelle does recognize, however, that telling the tale, by itself, isn’t the final step in getting better. No joke there: A story about injury can monumentalizeand perpetuatethe trauma. Repeated indefinitely, it can effectively extend the moment of damage, just as indefinitely, throughout a life as well. And Quenelle knows the palliative, disabling dodges, the differences between what someone hurting wants to hear and what they need to hear. These realizations are not inconsiderable.

But the Girl’s ultimate solution to recovering involves remembering who she was before the injury, and somehow reuniting with that persona. It’s a lovely key and, in this case, a useful one. It’s just that it doesn’t fit all, or possibly even most, of the locks out there. Even if it does, other locks remain. Yes, one true danger in any sickness involves not being able to remember what it was like to feel well. But for many survivors of domestic violence, no viable memory exists of any time before trauma. For many, there was no time before the damage began.

holding pattern dragged in places the night I saw it. But its main difficulty, ironically, involves another hallmark of children’s literature: a story line that’s probably too simplified a response to what, under the circumstances, I’ll call a Big People’s Problem. I hate to bring this news. As problems go, Quenelle and company have clearly identified one that needs more solutions.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.