Wrangled down to a mere four hours (with a break for complimentary sandwiches and soda), “No Dice” is billed as the streamlined version of an 11-hour epic performance piece constructed by Nature Theater of Oklahoma from more than 100 hours of conversation with family, friends and fellow actors about “their jobs, personal problems, aspirations and dreams.” Although a few poets and philosophers in that group might have raised the level of thought and verbal expression, Nature Theater stalwarts make do with the qualities that have made them the darlings of the downtown festival crowd — great physicality and flamboyant wit.
“No Dice” is performed in the technical raw (i.e., under high brights with few set pieces) in the nontheatrical setting of a former indoor playground run by someone named Sydney. That alone lends a creepy feeling to the proceedings, which begin in an undefined workplace where an unidentified office drone submits to questions about his depressing job.
Some hours later, after countless other voices have been heard talking earnestly (or angrily or wistfully or happily or sadly) about their lives and work, we return to that same office setting. Here, the same office drone (now played by a woman) finally admits that the job is “just the most absurd, ridiculous” waste of time — “and it all means nothing!”
Not everyone interviewed by company founders Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper feels quite as hopeless as that poor soul. In particular, the professional actors cling to a touching faith that recognition, if not fame, lies just around the corner. The catch phrases of encouragement they repeatedly offer one another become an inarticulate but brave mantra of hope: “You know, I mean, I feel like, you know, the beginning of the millennium … Things are bound to turn around.”
Despite such naked displays of feeling, Nature Theater is more interested in interpreting and translating human emotion into theatrical terms. This is what the company does best and where the group wit and imagination really come into play.
Here, they seem to take their cue from somebody’s mother who has been to a dinner theater production. Having prodded her into a discussion of her experience, the company responds to her impressions by gleefully satirizing the hackneyed conventions she describes. Exaggerated expressions frozen on their faces, they assume the phony accents and physical trappings of their cliched roles (of cowboy, pirate, dance hall hostess, etc.) and move with the spastic energy of really bad actors caught up in their parts.
The burlesque performance style hits its mark, so long as it’s applied to fellow theatricals earnestly talking about their professional hopes, dreams and setbacks. But whenever it’s turned on ordinary folks struggling to say something that would please a relentless interviewer, the Nature Theater style seems a little … um, you know, I mean, I feel like, you know … patronizing and cruel.