Christopher Bernard reviews 13th Floor’s play ‘Next Time I’ll Take the Stairs’ at San Francisco’s Joe Goode Annex

Zach Fischer and Jenny McAllister

Photos: Robbie Sweeny and Pak Han

ELEVATOR TO HELL AND BACK

Next Time I’ll Take the Stairs

13th Floor

Joe Goode Annex

San Francisco

A review by Christopher Bernard

I saw an earlier version of this piece – equal parts poetry, family drama, circus act and dance by 13th Floor, once a dance company, now doing theater as well – as a work in progress at the FURY Factory Festival of Ensemble and Devised Theater in June of this year, and so I’ll begin my review with what I said then:

“[‘Next Time I’ll Take the Stairs’ is] an elevator play, but with a difference, . . . depicting a ride to hell in the belly of the Otis Company’s most famous product. I say ‘to hell,’ but that may be over-simplifying just a hair; as 13th Floor tells it, it’s a ride to ‘a multi-storied world, inhabited by the shades of previous riders. Down is up, up is nowhere, and the memories of who you were can be re-formed by the stranger standing next to you.’ The show follows the adventures of brothers Arthur and Norris, their sister Rabbit, a lasciviously sadistic, compulsively inquisitive lady named Ivy and a disingenuous lug with a big wrench and the suspicious name of Otis, after all five crowd into an elevator that crashes into an alternative universe that is both unforgivingly absurd and weirdly sweet.

julie-mahony-and-david-silpa-in-next-time-photo-by-robbie-sweeny-5julie-mahony-and-david-silpa-in-next-time-photo-by-robbie-sweeny-5

“Brilliantly written and choreographed, often brain-achingly funny, this Alice in Wonderland journey is a whirlwind of mischievous non sequiturs, trips and pratfalls to the nowhere elevators ever elevate, or plunge, the unwitting to. . . . ”

The completed piece, in thirteen increasingly complicated, and complicating, scenes, deepens and enriches the zany relationships and the daft and endearing poetry at the heart of the piece, extending the stories that created the characters with whom we spend this curious hour: the tragic-comic birth of Rabbit (played as a sweetly ever-game Raggedy Ann by Jenny McAllister) to a pair of hellacious, hard-partying parents and the de facto parenting of her and her book-loving brother Norris (played by Colin Epstein) by their older, self-sacrificing brother Arthur (Zach Fischer), Rabbit’s near-death by drowning, with her pockets full of stones, at a mysterious lake, the dead bird that Rabbit (who works as an incinerator of dead birds at the Museum of Natural History) carries in her pocket along with “pocketfuls of tears,” a search by Otis for his lost soul (which it turns out bears a curious resemblance to a smartphone, but that he sometimes seems to confuse with a wrench) – and the slightly sinister fact that the back story of the small, intellectually brilliant Ivy, irresistible in blond and black, is the only one that is never revealed.

  I have to admit the performance this time lacked some of the sharpness and presence of what I saw in June, and it took a while for the piece to catch fire, though once it did, the rest of the show retained most of the freshness and thought-provoking poetry of the earlier one.

  In this performance the standout performance was by Julie Mahony, who if anything surpassed her earlier portrayal of Ivy, a manipulative and flirtatious circus master of the absurd whose imperious command of her victims to “tell” her their darkest stories helped whip the performance to its finest moments. There was never a lack of chemistry or fire whenever she was onstage; with the others, it was more uneven (unlike the performances in June, which were spot on, so this may just have been an off night).

Unfortunately, the Joe Goode Annex does not seem to have a sophisticated lighting system: more dramatic, or at least better keyed lighting would have helped. The sound design, which was handled with great subtlety, creeping up with fine pacing and judgment, as well as the imaginative script, was by the multi-talented Jenny McAllister.

An added bonus, for those who answered a brief questionnaire on audience demographics, was a booklet of little stories, also written by McAllister, which fill in some of the back stories of the characters, enriching the experience of an unusually generous theater piece.

(One small personal complaint: a quotation on a promotional handout, ascribed to the “SF Chronicle,” is partly in fact from my review from earlier this summer. So, if you notice a resemblance between it and the quotation in this review, that is the reason.)

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Christopher Bernard’s latest books include the novel Voyage to a Phantom City and Dangerous Stories for Boys. His next book, a collection of poems, Chien Lunatique, will appear in the spring of 2017. He is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector.