For all its yearning, “Flip Side” plays like a romp. Tough questions about personal identity are wrapped in visual wit and endearing performances, making the show, from avant-garde staples the Talking Band, a light entertainment that rewards closer inspection.Playwright Ellen Maddow developed her text around Anna Kiraly’s set and video designs, which resulted in a strikingly physical script. Actors define their surroundings, whether by rearranging cloth-covered panels or spinning laptops that show pictures of their own faces. And those laptop faces are key. When Sylvia Waterfall (Tina Shepard) puts her electronic visage in front of her real one, she’s showing us how she appears to Alan Flynnalyn (John Hellweg), an old classmate she IMs every day. We’re asked to consider how she changes when she’s “seen” through a computer instead of in the real world. All the characters worry about seeing and being seen, and what that does to their lives. Even the play’s landscape is structured around facing communities: The Waterfalls live in a fast, crowded world, where everyone buzzes with energy, while the Flynnalyns live in Drizzle Plaza, a gray place where not much happens. No matter where they live, characters dream about the people on the other side, peeking at them through binoculars or comically thick glasses. Eventually, people start visiting their neighbors, and the consequences range from transcendent to incredibly sad. This could be a quirky fable, but Maddow pushes the connection between the Waterfalls and the folks in Drizzle Plaza. It’s obvious, for instance, that both places are made from the same set pieces, and the actors all play one character from each realm. Sometimes the doubling is bluntly symbolic: Shepard is also Alan’s wife Marilyn, making her both the temptress and the woman scorned. But Will Badgett is Oscar Waterfall, Sylvia’s blowhard husband, and Aurora, an old biddy who likes to gossip in the park. The reason for the overlap is unclear. Are Oscar and Aurora both hiding behind loud personalities? Are they both parts of a single character? In a way, the answer doesn’t matter. These worlds are interconnected, and we’re free to decide what that means. But Talking Band co-founder Maddow does more than write metaphors. For every loopy scene, there’s a relatable conflict to keep the audience grounded. Thesps master tonal shifts and multiple roles. Shepard gives Marilyn spunk as she hunts the woman who might steal her husband, and just moments later, she makes Sylvia’s loneliness palpable. Director (and Talking Band a.d.) Paul Zimet tightly controls the transitions between worlds, and he knows when to focus on the design. Sometimes he lets the set dominate the narrative, as when workers in Drizzle Plaza (Heidi Schreck and David Brooks) lift cloth-covered frames off the floor to create a massive cube. They move slowly and meticulously, and just when it seems their work is done, they peel off a piece of fabric to reveal a video screen, or they unveil Alan and Marilyn, arguing in their house. It’s fun to watch these simple pieces of scenery get constantly rearranged into something new. “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s score creates a context for each new setting. Some of his music is a melancholy wash of synthesizers, and some is an anxious burst of drums. But all of it is strange and beautiful, just like the play.
Connelly Theater; 99 seats; $20 top
A Talking Band presentation of a play in one act by Ellen Maddow. Directed by Paul Zimet.
Sets and video, Anna Kiraly; costumes, Kiki Smith; lighting, Nan Zhang; original music, "Blue" Gene Tyranny; sound, David Wiggall; puppets, Ralph Lee; props, Caitlin Bliss; production stage manager, Denise Cardarelli. Opened Sept. 30, 2008. Reviewed Sept. 28. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.
Aurora, Oscar Waterfall - Will Badgett Frank, Mrs. Wormser - David Brooks Alan Flynnalyn, Cousin Ricky - John Hellweg Celeste, Cherimoya Waterfall - Sue Jean Kim Daisy, Lucinda Waterfall - Heidi Schreck Marilyn Flynnalyn, Sylvia Waterfall - Tina Shepard