By Wesley James
The Realm brings a movingly symbolic and liberatingly high-quality execution to an increasingly familiar story. The plot follows a young woman attempting to flee an underground dystopia with her best friend as he succumbs to the ubiquitous brain-washing that dominates their society. The story deals with flight and song, mythology and collective unconscious, and above all our vital and endemic human ownership of language. The Realm skips past the idea of censorship and into something much more haunting: the very loss of speech and faculty; it’s a more tragic fight, but the small victories showcased are more beautiful by far. This conflict and the way its message transcends the setting or characters are what set this play apart – the boy searching for his mother as he forgets his words and the doctor who tracks the effectiveness of brain-washing in the youths, the immune protagonist launching a futile and anticipated resistance and the mother who almost made it out – in being vessels for the overarching plight of language, each is made greater than their role in the story.
Because this is a rapidly expanding genre, it’s important to note some of the big components of the play done absolutely right: scary made-up or repurposed future words are kept to a minimum, exposition is subtle and largely contributes to overarching symbolism, and the setting is never abused for lazy plot devices. A loving nod to a generation brought up with The Giver (if not a spiritual stage-adaptation), the show trusts its audience to understand its context and cuts right to the heart of the matter. This keeps the tension high and the run-time tight; that delightfully skewed pacing allows The Realm to catch the audience off guard effectively, once again refreshing a story we know well.
The production adheres to these rules as well – asceticism is key here, with the minimalist set highlighting rather than distracting from the play. The actors bend perfectly at those points where genuinity is overshadowed by story, particularly the doctor (Gay Glenn) who twists and turns her brilliantly charismatic antagonist to suit the truth of the setting and the truth of the message simultaneously. There’s an interesting through-line of words being replaced by sounds – the magnitude of the sound design in such an otherwise technically undemanding show, coupled with how easy it would be for these sounds to be garish, tired, or distracting – it’s so well executed it will go largely unnoticed and entirely underappreciated, which is a shame.
It’s nice that The Realm isn’t perfect because if it was it probably wouldn’t be so ambitious or surprisingly unique. A few of the themes and plot devices seem rushed or abandoned – the skewed pacing needs to be worked out by the end or it all feels abrupt. There’s a motif of flight that does hold up even without great payoff, but the attachment to a small flower and most of the “boy searches for his mother” subplot aren’t done justice. So many things (the nursery rhymes and subversion of the chanting come to mind) do pay off that the play may just be biting off too much. In that way The Realm feels slightly unfinished, at least unpolished, but that’s good – I want to see more.
The Realm is presented by The Other Theatre Company at the Side Project through May 8. More information here.
The Hawk was a common name for the cold, winter wind in Chicago, possibly even predating "the Windy City." Additionally, a hawk can see up to eight times more clearly than the human eye.