Don't attend The Puzzle Locker, at the University of Rochester's Todd Theatre, seeking answers, it won't provide any. Don't attend expecting a linear plotline involving the traditional exposition, climax, and resolution. This is avant-garde theatre. So, seek questions, because you will leave with many. Seek an original experience: It will be delivered.
An unnatural campground and a twisted school for exceptional children are the setting for a plot that swerves back and forth between reality and an unknown dimension. The living and the dead co-exist in this earthbound purgatory and battle through their struggles with death, hope, poetry, nature, and memory.
Noted playwright W. David Hancock worked with the cast to write characters tailored to the actors. The intimate development process is evident, as all the actors beautifully and disturbingly portray their characters. Priest, Squirrel, Vampire Girl, Soccer Mom, Superhero Girl, and Sasquatch (yes, Bigfoot) are a few of the demented that haunt this play. An exceptional performance by Annie Herzog as Campfire Girl touches the audience with a startling combination of innocence, lost hope, and desperation. Stepping directly out of an urban legend, Katie McManus as the dead Cheerleader is eerie.
Black soil, dry leaves, and a broken tree stump transform the theatre into a foreboding campground. In contrast, the pale blue paint and children's art that decorates the classroom's wall is inexplicably nerve-wracking. The audience leaves the theater literally having ingested and inhaled the grit of this other world. The sound, light, and video designs are innovative, affective, and shocking.
Director Nigel Maister effectively navigates Hancock's surreality, guiding the creation of a thought-provoking production. His blocking has the actors employing every inch of the theater's space as they climb through windows, over a fireplace, and under beds and boxes. But the pace drags. There is only so long that an audience can pay attention to what they don't understand. Hancock could have communicated the same confused, intriguing messages and eliminated the second act. The audience is lost in this superfluous act as Hancock tries to lighten the established dark, cold mood with failed comedy.
"Certainty can destroy you," the park ranger insists to the psychic girl. Have no fear of imminent destruction: You will leave the theater confused, but charged with the questions The Puzzle Locker inspires.
The University of Rochester International Theatre Program's production of The Puzzle Locker is on stage Wednesday through Saturday, April 27 through 30, in the Todd Theatre, UR River Campus, at 8 p.m. (Sun 3 p.m.) $10. www.rochester.edu/theatre, 275-4088