One way for an actor to gain control over her craft is to become a director. Another is by participating in devised theater, where the script is created through the collaboration of the actors and director. The result, as you might imagine, can often be a shapeless and self-indulgent pile of fetid glop.
Or it can be stimulating, sometimes hilarious, and often thought provoking, as is the case with Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. Director Raymond Bobgan and two of the three performers, Holly Holsinger and Chris Seibert, combined to assemble this challenging yet entirely accessible piece that explores the pleasures and terrors of all our various self-perceptions: those lurking identities that whisper to us in the night.
It's not just wackos in tin foil hats who hear voices in their heads. We all do. And our relative sanity is defined by how we deal with those voices. This play introduces us to a well-to-do middle-aged woman, Evelyn, whose voices have taken up permanent residence in her "attic." Ev is a younger version of Evelyn, wary and conflicted now that she's been replaced, and Zelda is the exuberant and unfettered child who nurtured both of them into being.
While the storyline is not linear, it remains firmly grounded in its chosen metaphor. And that allows the audience to relax and fully appreciate some of the inventive digressions that give the performance such sparkle.
For instance, Ev and Zelda pass the time playing games, one of which involves reenacting scenes from 1930s-style movies, complete with the arch acting style common to those flicks.
Another time, Zelda gives a play-by-play description of Evelyn's husband Edward as he rides the baloney pony with a pretty young female guest in Evelyn's house. Zelda does this while gazing into a View-Master, the kind of ancient device you'd find in an attic.
These interludes are not only amusing; they also reveal the Looney Tunes nature of the voices that infest our dreams and sometimes even our waking moments. But happily, the authors never allow the dream-state side trips to overwhelm the clear arc of the play.
Songs are also woven into the fabric of the staging, with two ethereal tunes written by the cast members. But the production ends with a haunting version of the classic "Me and My Shadow," a lyric that suddenly feels contemporary and enticingly meaningful in this context.
The three performers are essentially flawless in their interpretation of this unique material. Indeed, this trio of Holsinger, Seibert, and Anne McEvoy — along with Beth Wood — make up the core of one of CPT's most memorable female performances in years.
McEvoy is solid and often wryly funny as Evelyn, a woman who can't negotiate a peace with her own voices. Her deadpan delivery of some lines garners a few of the bigger laughs. And Holsinger makes conflicted Ev a picture of hopes dashed and dreams denied.
But Seibert's Zelda is such a live wire, you feel energized just watching her. Contorting her body into various kid-like postures and taking gleeful delight in prodding the other two "herselves," Seibert owns the stage whenever she is in the vicinity.
Director Bobgan exerts firm control over a play that could easily careen over the edge. Meanwhile, he crafts a theatrical experience loaded with interesting takes on how we integrate our personal histories — and those vexing and ever-present voices — into our current personas.
It's all played on a handsome, forced-perspective set (not credited in the program) that evokes everyone's vision of the typical attic where memories are stored — just, in this instance, in a very unusual way.
If you enjoy theater that challenges while it entertains, Insomnia is sure to keep you awake.