In The Flick, Annie Baker rejected virtually every rule of theatrical storytelling to find the drama in the minutiae of everyday life. Now, those rules are the subject of her new play, The Antipodes, which puts eight writers around a conference table trying to find inspiration for their new project. They know it will deal with a monster—or something monstrous—and only have one guideline: “No dwarves or elves or trolls.”
Their boss, Sandy (Will Patton), mostly asks that they tells stories about their own lives. The first time you had sex? Worst thing that ever happened to you? Biggest regret? This leads to a kind of group prurience, as the table laps up accounts of sex and infidelity and suicide. Still, Sandy’s ambitions are larger than this would suggest. While speaking to his own boss, he describes the project as an attempt to tell a story “without words or pictures or objects,” one that doesn’t need to be written down, that doesn’t need actors, that is “the only story we all need to know.”
Meanwhile, the office itself assumes an unaddressed, menacing atmosphere. When Danny M. (Danny McCarthy) admits he is uncomfortable turning his personal life into stories, he is summoned into Sandy’s office and never returns. Their secretary, Sarah (Nicole Rodenberg), speaks and blinks like a Stepford wife. The weather outside turns apocalyptic, and Sandy starts skipping entire weeks of work.
The Signature has spent most of this season in self-reflection, from Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talkhouse to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Everybody. Enervation and disintegration are in the air, and all these playwrights seem interested in going back to the beginning and examining the purpose of their work, whether to indict it for complacency or to ask that it provide spiritual redemption rather than diversion or emotional fulfillment.
The Antipodes is among the stronger of these plays, rather modestly suggesting amidst all its grandeur that art, and in particular mythology, exists simply to make sense for the subject of its relation to others and to the world around it. After failing to engage his peers with a story about his fear of handling chickens, Danny M. admits his feeling that “there’s some secret, that there’s some thing in this life I don’t fully have access to, maybe it’s a specific kind of joy, I’m not sure. And that summer with the chickens I really do feel like if I had just picked them up something would have changed in me and my life might be very different now.” The Antipodes, I think, is reassuring us that we all feel this way, that we are all surrounded by confusion, by unanswerable questions, and by a relationship to time that is far too rigid. Stories—even those about dwarves and elves and trolls—shape that confusion into something manageable.