Ever have a last-second deadline throw you into an existential crisis? The sort of debilitating stupor that can only arise when every single nerve ending you thought was dead goes alight?
How about a sudden, unexpected death followed by a funeral?
To liken playwright Kristen Kosmas’s new play, “There There,” to the panic induced by personal traumas is something of an overstatement. But it fits, resulting in a wonderfully disorienting piece of modern theater. Luckily, it’s at Long Island City’s Chocolate Factory as part of this year’s COIL Festival, Performance Space 122’s annual winter collection of live arts shows.
The play, directed by Paul Willis, starts with actor Christopher Walken falling off a ladder. Well, sort of. The Astoria native is in the midst of a tour, performing a solo extraction of Captain Vasily Vasilevich Solyony from Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” with an accompanying Russian translation.
For all of its moments of clear humor and subtle visuals, “There There” is still tough to stomach. The dueling narration at times become dizzying. Those expecting a narrative arc with a clear ending should stay home.
Instead, we get subterfuge. Karen, played by Kosmas, coyly alludes to Solynoy’s defeat of the Baron in “Three Sisters” during a duel, drawing questions about the “accident” that left Walken incapacitated. (It should be noted the actor isn’t actually on stage physically — a very Chekhov-like ploy.)
Walken’s fall happens off-stage, unfortunately. But the actor’s loss is our gain. Karen unwillingly fills in for the actor, completely uncompensated and lacking any preparation. Her loose familiarity with the play comes from one proofreading.
Enter Leo, an accompanying Russian translator presumably meant to deliver the play in its native tongue. She comes laced with narratives of her own, played by the deceptively commanding Larisa Tokmakova.
The ensuing mÍlÈe of bastardized Chekhov and Karen’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings offers one of the braver theatrical works on hand. It requires an equal amount of bravery from the audience.
“There There” bears all the trademarks of modern experimental theater. The plot is anything but linear. The dialogue is actually dueling monologues, with Leo’s Russian translation serving as a stoic metronome to Karen’s performance. It’s a nifty bit of stage trickery, forcing the audience to zero in on the center stage monologue.
The Chocolate Factory’s intimate space enhances the effect, with seats lining the perimeter around a room decorated in pre-Soviet regalia. Karen ends up spending much of the play in your face because she has nowhere else to go. It’s a cage that suits her character’s predicament.
Karen dives into the pseudo-Chekhov role with aplomb, making allusions to the original script she proofread. Or at least she tries — and fails. For example, a plea for tea becomes a quest for a pear. And Solyony’s cutting remarks in “Three Sisters” become misguided jabs that ultimately land on Karen’s shoulders.
In her blind attempts at channeling Chekhov, she inevitably exposes parts of herself. Love, the utility of human interaction, a woman’s role, nothing is left sacred in Karen’s dash through her mind. And at times, she’s funny.
The roles of Karen and Leo present an obvious danger. Talking to yourself is all good and often fun. But the line between sublime and loopy is a perilous one. Kosmas navigates it deftly as Karen. And when she does teeter, the play has a built-in safety valve.
Just as things seem to be falling apart both on the stage and in Karen’s mind, Tokmakova’s Leo breaks with her translation and injects tension. At times, her interjections come down to a simple “Karen!” Other times, Leo seeks assurances that her dreams don’t make her a sociopath. It’s hard to overstate how deftly Tokmakova steals the spotlight when she needed.
Neither character seems too comfortable with the role she’s been asked to fill. The noncompetition for the spotlight between Karen and Leo rests at the heart of the “There There.” But watching it shouldn’t bring the same trepidation. Check it out at the Chocolate Factory, before it’s gone gone.
When: Jan. 10-12, 8 and 10 p.m.
Where: The Chocolate Factory, 5-49 49 Ave., L.I.C.
Tickets: $20, (718) 482-7069