Jessica Lanius, the artistic director of Theatre LILA, refers to her company’s productions as “inventions,” and there’s certainly truth to that: The vignettes that make them up—with a mix of music, dance, drama and simple props—have playful inventiveness in spades. In “The Bed,” running through March 19 at the Wisconsin Union’s Frederich March Play Circle, it’s poetry, of both the verbal and physical variety, that takes center stage.
Whereas last year’s “Trash” trained its focus on our impact on the world at large, this one turns the focus inward, serving up themes of identity and connection. When you walk into the theater, there’s a shockingly white four-poster bed in the middle of the stage, and Olivia D. Dawson (who also contributes one of the show’s 17 vignettes) is sleeping on it, surrounded by seven cast members, undulating to the sounds of eerie breathing. In moments, they’re going to come to represent both her dreams and her nightmares.
Unlike LILA’s previous productions, “The Bed” skips scene changes and intermission. The vignettes flow by like the breaths of a sleeper in the deepest depths of REM sleep; they blur into one another, to the point where some pass by without you even realizing they’ve concluded.
Motifs do recur, however. Alistair Sewell plays the bowler-wearing emcee of this dreamland, constantly asking Dawson’s protagonist, “Who are you?” and pressing her when she can’t readily respond. It becomes a question she can’t answer until the very end.
Like an oversized, boldly colored quilt, “The Bed” has plenty of memorable highlights. One finds Lanius and Michael Huftile playing a married couple who’ve drifted to the point where they’re unable to communicate or connect at bedtime. Their sequence of synchronized body shifting on the bed is at once familiar, funny and incisive. Backdropping the action against Mark Snowden reading the words of poet Phillip Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” (“At this unique distance from isolation/It becomes still more difficult to find/Words at once true and kind/Or not untrue and not unkind”) kick it up a notch.
For the first time, Lanius gets to do more than just conceive and co-direct (her partner in directorial crime this time is APT’s Jim DeVIta, who is seemingly directing, writing and acting in everything these days). She’s front and center in a handful of vignettes, and it’s great to get to see that side of her talent. (Feel free to cast yourself again, Jessica; it’s not self-serving in the slightest.)
Michael Huftile, one of several actors in the cast who’ve been mainstays in previous LILA works, is back to his show-stealing tricks as an apprentice tooth fairy whose opening night flies hilariously off the rails. He also reprises, briefly, the clown character he played in the other LILA shows. It’s obviously a broad wink to long-time LILA fans, but at this point, it’s feeling a little unnecessary.
In “The Bed’s” final third, there’s a jarring tonal shift, from the intimacy that’s come before to vignettes that deal with Dawson’s character’s role as a mother in a crime-riddled community. The vignette “Abami Eye” features both jaw-dropping choreography and the kinetic impact of Elijah E. Edwards rat-a-tat rap—and man, does he deliver it with authority—but it comes so late in the proceedings it almost feels like it’s been dropped in from a different show. There’s barely enough time to process the import or connect it to all that’s come before.
With a running time of just over an hour, “The Bed” breezes by faster than an extended afternoon nap. But there’s no question it leaves a much deeper and lasting impression. This collection of creative souls has created another visual masterpiece that challenges the mind as much as the senses.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.