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Photograph courtesy of Aaron Lewis Photography

Kissing High: Seth Kane and Julie Fogh get up-close and personal in 'Skyscraper.'

A Tall Order

Renegade Theatre Experiment rides all the way to the top with David Auburn's 'Skyscraper'

By Marianne Messina

IN HIS notes, Chris Tann, director of Renegade Theatre Experiment's Skyscraper, recounts a recurring childhood dream that starts in "an old, ramshackle skyscraper" with an elevator leading to "no end of mysterious adventures, meeting strange people and being transported to strange places."

The dream seems prophetic of playwright David (Proof) Auburn's highest aspirations for Skyscraper. Most of the play takes place on the rooftop of a century-old skyscraper ("This used to be the tallest building in Chicago") on the eve of its destruction, which makes for reflection on time and timelessness and the value of memory, collective and personal.

Two of these rooftop characters are a 110-year-old man, Louis (John Baldwin), and a woman named Vivian (lovely Jean Naughton), who has come to jump from the rooftop. Between ghostly encounters, sexual trysts, harrowing rescues, suicidal leaps and arm-breaking accidents, the building, with its awe-inspiring mosaic room, serves as a sort of jumping-off point (pardon the pun) for the "mysterious adventures" of Tann's dreams. But the script itself shows signs of being Auburn's freshman effort. The broken or trailed-off speeches—"I ... he ..."—often sound like unnatural attempts to craft natural-sounding language, and at the opening performance, the actors were clearly still trying to make rhythmical sense of them.

Thematic skeins that are tied up more neatly in later plays are often left to dangle in Skyscraper. Auburn throws out his idea that passion rarely takes us to safe places but then drops it to kick up other concepts, as if a mosaic is simply the product of intuitive impulse thrown against a wall rather than a tightly ordered design. RTE's production peaks in moments where the choric interplay of several characters forms a sort of mosaic of dialogue and action, of personalities and cross-purposes.

Nowhere is this more well-choreographed and creatively staged than in the opening scene, when the six characters descend through the audience. Making use of the unique Hoover Theatre floor space between audience and stage, they accost each other on a busy sidewalk, as it appears, in various pairings. They are street-wise Jessica (Sarah Eismann) in her army fatigues, who wants to preserve the building; building owner Raymond (Peter K. Owen), wearing "the perfect raincoat"; his rumpled, alternative-styled brother, Joseph (Seth Kane); and tight-skirted, power-suited lawyer Jane (Julie Fogh nails Jane's curt dominance). Tann, movement coordinator Evangeline Maynard and costume designer Bonnie Rippberger come together in this moment to create the sense of human mosaic that makes life both adventurous and mysterious. Jennifer Jigour's scenic design shows us enough of the building's top layer so that we see ornate Ionic columns from a time when architecture was about creating interesting spaces, extending personality and making statements. The black stage around the isolated rooftop scenic structure echoes this sense of desolation. Missing bricks suggest abandonment and the old man's missing memories. And like the owner of the building ordering its demolition in spite of his love for the mosaic room, the old man decides he doesn't want to "assemble" the "fragments" that are left of his memory. Once again, thoughtful choices by Derek Batoyon at the sound board bring out Nat King Cole singing "Unforgettable" at just the right moment, and the song follows you out of the theater as the memory of a certain lady follows Louis 100 years down the ages.

Skyscraper, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 1 at the Historic Hoover Theatre, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $13–$20. (See www.renegadetheatre.com for ticket info.)

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From the September 21-27, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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