Everything Is Established
Physical Plant's new work is a fast, funny, disturbing example of great Austin playmaking
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Feb. 20, 2015
The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo, www.physicalplant.org. Through Feb. 21. Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.
In a way, it's not even fair. In a lot of places, a play like Everything Is Established would score heaps of attention and stick in everyone's memories for its originality, hilarity, and imaginative staging. But this is Austin. We see a play like this, we have a great time, and we think, "Gosh, isn't it nice that this is typical of the kind of arts experience I frequently get to have living here?"
Some of it is that the play, written and directed by Hannah Kenah for Physical Plant Theater, follows a similar structure and aesthetic to those of other collaborative theatre groups working in Austin right now. It begins with a direct-address declaration of what at first seems to be the entire meaning of the play, and the joy is in discovering how the details unfold and what they reveal. It relies heavily on the training and talents of its cast – in this case, a marvelous trio made up of Jeffery Mills, Michael Joplin, and Lee Eddy – who pull from backgrounds in improv, Viewpoints, clowning, classical theatre, and more to make the show into less of a play and more of an event.
The plot of Everything Is Established even has echoes of how we like to tell stories in this town. Concrete realities are scarce in this world; we know at the beginning that two servants, Montgomery (Mills) and Plaster (Joplin), have been living in a gleeful, two-man anarchy since the death of their master, Mr. Albert. This changes when Montgomery chooses not to cancel Mr. Albert's purchase of a mail-order bride (Eddy), who arrives in her wedding dress, with a terrified look on her face and a single spatula in her hand. (Absurd, amusing imagery: another hallmark of Austin playmaking.)
Then it gets confusing. How dead is Mr. Albert, really? Or how alive was he in the first place? The servants take turns embodying him, and in these impersonations, he takes over their personalities. Sally, the bride, slowly catches on to what's happening, and the two servants struggle to keep some semblance of the order they had devised for themselves.
To say that Everything Is Established feels a lot like other plays that are created in Austin is not to criticize the work or to give in to a critic's cynicism. If anything, it's to note that this is a work that falls squarely within the artistic identity of our community. It's also to wonder at what would happen for this show in another place. It's not uncommon in my experience to see a play here and note to local friends and colleagues, "Oh yes, that was neat. I liked that show they did a couple years ago better, though," only to hear from friends who catch that same show when it tours in other cities that it was perhaps the most original and mind-bending thing they'd seen in the last five years.
Who can say what another community might make of Everything Is Established? For an audience member here, it is a quick-paced, funny, and disturbing tale of shifting identities, with three actors so good that they seem inseparable from the story they tell.