A modern day Odysseus roams across America with sails of rubber and a ship of steel in the Staller Center this week. That Odysseus (or rather Odyssea) is Penny, a graduate student at a university that might as well be Stony Brook. She’s been infected with an intractable despair by her interminable academic program, her clingy and oblivious boyfriend, Todd, and her disconnection with her supposed home. Penny takes inspiration from the Greek heroes she’s read about: Odysseus and Socrates. She wants to see and know many things and thus know herself. She takes desperate, immediate action, signing up for a quest to bike across America just five days before it begins. This is an impulse that all humans feel: the desire to escape to somewhere else, to chase the hope of something new. We want to find a place where we fit, whatever it takes. It’s an absurd plan: cyclists take months or years to train for what Penny wants to do in five days. But Penny is an ancient kind of hero: she has the courage to follow adventure and the irrationality to suffer while doing it.
She soon meets up with her companions on the trip, a motley crew of cyclists. They’re all bizarre, but the actors (all Stony Brook students) don’t caricaturize them– they translate as real people. They’re bizarre because they’re authentic, ringing true as personalities you’d meet in the world of cycling. Ryan, the incredibly fit, enthusiastic leader; Tim Billy, who seems overly earnest at first but is revealed to be the one person doing the ride for its actual purpose; The Man in the Van, who drives support for the group, fixing mechanical problems and doling out decades-old pieces of wisdom; and Annabel & Rorie, who show Penny a truer meaning of love through their own bravery and suffering.
The rest of the play follows Penny and her band as they race across the States. The choreography is rather remarkable and a delight to watch. Bicycles could potentially be boring when made stationary for the stage. To solve this the director cut off the back part of the bicycles. This left the actors with just the handlebars and front wheel of their bikes, which kept the visual but allowed them to move freely.
It is a ballet of relative motion: speed is conveyed by the characters’ relation to each other: a character will quickly skip backwards and into the distance to simulate another speeding up. The actors fill in the rest with their activity. When the group speeds up, we can see it because the riders skip their feet rapidly and lean over the handlebars into the oncoming wind, struggling against the road and the tempest. The excellent choreography turns something that could’ve been an obstacle, into a delight. Every scene on the road is given an extra level of interest from the anticipation of what the bicycles will do next.
The costumes, set, cycles and choreography combine nicely to suggest the setting and physical reality of each scene without using the type of stifling realism that leaves no gaps for the audience’s imagination. Each character has subtle differences in clothing and gear that, at points in the play, are used as excellent shorthand. When Todd moves beyond heartbreak and finds true love in the whir of a bicycle clipping across open roads this, spiritual change is represented in the switch from his dorky windbreaker to a form-fitting lycra speed-suit (which we know is the best because it matches Ryan’s).
Mythology, grand issues, and the same personal suffering that people face are all wound together well. The performance is almost continuously comedic, which arises from the absurdity of the action itself and not from clever quips pasted on top. There is a tension in the play between the almost-constant comedy and the grave themes running beneath it. The initially-goofy ride that they’re on is in fact a fundraiser for cancer research. Two of the cyclists are in love, but are prevented from marriage by the mortal laws of many states they roll through. This is how the two ends of our experience relate in life, too: things are never wholly comedic or tragic. The two are intertwined. We learn from both.
As Todd, Penny’s (ex)boyfriend, is hilariously consoled by his mother we learn along with him: if a girl tells you she’s not really interested in dating that doesn’t mean she wants to make an exception in your case. In the end, we and Penny learn that her problems are grave and real, but that the solution to them is not to find the perfect life. Rather she must find a good one and actually live it. We must not be trapped forever in the preparation and the choosing, but begin to live. This is what the best theatre and literature does: it gives us courage and guidance not to escape into fantasy but to turn out again to a greater life.
Bike America by Mike Lew
Staller Center, Theater 2
$10 Students with ID, $20 General Admission
631-632-2787 or Staller Box Office for Tickets
Thursday, March 5th, 8:00 p.m.
Friday, March 6th, 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 7th, 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, March 8th, 2:00 p.m.