The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Present of the Past: ‘Don’t Miss It’ World Premiere by Rapid Descent

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Ren (Sydney Schwindt), T (James Sundquist), and L (María Ascensión Leigh). Don’t have time on their side. Photo courtesy of Rapid Descent Physical Performance Company

“Don’t waste energy trying to make time move faster, because it won’t until one day when you don’t want it to and you’ll wonder if all those nights spent longing for the future are now being paid back by making a beautiful present more fleeting. So please, if only for my karmic peace of mind, chill out about it, ok?”
– Alan Cumming’s letter to his 16-year-old self, as collected in the book Dear Me: A Letter to My 16-Year-Old Self (2011)

I’ve always hated the adage “hindsight is 20/20”. I mainly hate it because it was spoken by people I couldn’t stand – self-righteous pricks who are trying to brush away their own mistakes or pedantically comment on your mistakes. “Hindsight is 20/20” doesn’t help you veer from making the same mistake again, it just tells you what you already know.

I also hate that phrase because, well, it’s true. Like all clichés, it’s based in truth. Of course having the knowledge I have now would have set me down a different path. The question is whether that other path would have really been better. We tend to look at the past so myopically that it’s almost impossible to see our former mistakes and triumphs and being intertwined. I think back to the “Tapestry” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation: going back to fix your biggest mistake could very well erase your greatest triumphs.

This moral quandary is at the heart of Megan Finlay’s Don’t Miss It, which premiered at the EXIT last week. Our lead character, known simply as “L” (María Ascensión Leigh), is a therapist and inventor. She’s created a device that not only allows her patients to tap into forgotten memories, but mentally experience them in real time. If you’ve ever been through therapy (I have) then you’ll know that the potential applications for this are both fascinating and terrifying.

After testing the device on her boyfriend, “T” (James Sundquist), the two are almost ready to celebrate. Then she gets the message. L is told that the device will eventually open windows into time itself, allowing users to contact their former selves and make changes – changes that result in disaster. How do she know this? Because the person sending the message is L herself from ten years in the future.

As a story, Don’t Miss It is an intriguing, if not quite solid, ponderance on the unforeseen consequences of innovation. As a production, it’s hindered by resources unable to fully realize the story’s full potential. Then again, SHN shows all have lavish budgets, but this year they put on the tackiest Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I’ve ever seen, so what are you gonna do?

This show, at least, has a number of creative ideas working in its favor. For instance, messages from the future are discovered (via projection) in the present as Tinkerbell-esque avatars that have to be caught – usually on someone’s shirt – then tossed onto a monitor like spaghetti against a wall. It’s ideas like that which show a surplus of imagination to counter the lack of budget.

Said lack of budget only really becomes an issue during transition scenes – with the three cast members doing all the on-stage work, it can occasionally require a bit of a suspension of disbelief. What’s more, the transitions and tremors through time (yes, it has those) could have been aided by sound effects accompanying the actors’ movements, particularly in the climax.

Don't Miss It world premiere by Rapid Descent at the EXIT - set

Photo by Me.

Still, Finlay’s cast – who are credited as co-creators – are clearly game for the physical demands of the show and the far-fetched aspects of the story. They appear to know the key rule of fantasy stories: if the performers don’t believe it, neither will the audience. The keystone of the piece is former Breadbox mainstay María Ascensión Leigh as L. Always reliable as a performer, Leigh well balances the subdued optimism of Present-L with the desperation of Future-L. Many key moments involve Leigh literally talking to herself (through video by Darl Packard and SF Playhouse’s Wolfgang Wachalovsky). One particular late scene in which her present-self begs for answers as her future-self sadly realizes she’s out of options is actually gripping to watch.

Also doubling up in roles is James Sundquist as boyfriend “T” and future government lackey Andrew Shelley. (All we know of T in the future is that he and L are no longer a couple, the seeds of which I would like to have seen in the present scenes.) As T, he tends to lean more towards goofball, whereas Shelley is just a straight hard-ass. Neither has a great level of dimension, but Shelley being crucial to the plot leaves him with more of an impression. Rounding out the cast is the only solo role, Sydney Schwindt as L’s sister Ren. I don’t recall having ever seen Schwindt perform before, but she’s a pleasant presence on stage. As she’s also credited as the show’s fight choreographer, it appears, at least, that no one got hurt in the back-and-forth of the climax.

And as spartan as the technical aspects may be, there was clearly a hope that using little would result in a lot. No set designer is credited, so we’re not sure who created the set up in the photo above. I did, however, note Darl Packard’s lighting scheme throughout the show. Before the show begins, a single green spot points down from the roof onto center-stage. Eventually, the entire overhead row lights up into shades of purple (and a few others that I forgot off-hand). It certainly helps in tracking the shifts between time and space when both are crucial to this story.

With a running time of roughly one hour, Don’t Miss It feels like the promising first draft of a grander larger story, or the proof-of-concept for a more ambitious production. Should the story have a future, one hopes that Finlay will be blessed with the budget to match the scope of her story, as well as the running time to develop the characters more. She clearly has a lot of talent at her disposal, she just needs a much larger canvas on which to paint her picture. And hey, the play all-but-ends with the door open for a sequel, so… who knows?

GRADE:                                                    B-

Don’t Miss It is scheduled to run 22nd of June on the mainstage of the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly one hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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