Review: Caravan's '800 Words' explores the final days of Philip K. Dick

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And now for something completely different ...

Well, not as different as Philip K. Dick seemed back in his final transmigratory days in 1982, but eccentric enough.

Nor as different as theater can be, but still over the border in what you might call theatrical surrealism.

And certainly different from the other works of playwright Victoria Stewart, who wittily inserts herself into the play to complicate its interweaving of past, present and future, fact and fiction, memory and dream.

Words: 'The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick'

Where: Caravan Theatre, at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

When: Through Sept. 30, Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 1 p.m.

Tickets: $15-$20; (ages 18 and over).

Welcome to the internal world of Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), an American short story writer, novelist, religio/philosophical guru and ingestor of mind-altering substances. Usually classified as a sci-fi writer, Dick is best known for the stories that became the starting points for such films as "Blade Runner," "Minority Report" and "The Adjustment Bureau."

He was also the first sci-fi writer included in The Library of America series. That suggests a serious, academic reputation, but he was mainly a cult figure, two measures of that being (A) that it's the first thing everyone says about him and (B) his lengthy article in Wikipedia -- too long to read without cultish dedication or several drinks.

The play explores Dick's final days, or perhaps years, because it keeps doubling back in time or sprinting forward or splitting, circling or intertwining. Dick's writing challenges the reality of real, suggesting that matter is a product of mind, so the play replicates that as far as it can.

In under two hours it also suggests a real account of Dick's increasing mental instability (or insight -- take your pick), voiced mainly by his wife (his fifth, I believe), played with firm, wry love by Dana Hardy. Meanwhile, various others course through his life -- most vividly, a slim, enigmatic teenager, a drug dealer who is also the ghost of his sister who died at birth, played with delicious reserve by Lily Davis.

Other inhabitants of Dick's fevered imagination or memory or present reality are his agent (made crisply humorous by Dan DiGiulio), an FBI agent (humorously accentuated by Tony Bingham) and Sasha, his talking cat (a puppet moved and voiced by Gayle Pazerski, a spooky double to the sister). There's also a mini-Dick puppet (puppets by Norman Beck and Venise St. Pierre).

The center of all this, or perhaps circumference, is Dick himself, played by John Gresh. He definitely looks like Dick -- burly, scruffy, a sort of sadsack or perceptive teddy bear. You just want to hug him and assure him it'll be all right. But he gets somewhat repetitive, especially as I don't see the flashes of insight that supposedly make Dick worthy of interest.

For me, the cleverest device is Ms. Stewart's insertion of herself (that is, a character with her name), creating a reality/fiction conundrum a lot like that in Dick's own mind. Diana Ifft portrays her with sharp-edged appeal: quick-witted, enigmatic, exactly what any playwright would choose for her own avatar.

The scenery by Terry Dana Jachimiak II is just a desk and two tall, amorphous panels (colorfully painted by Carol Sulla) which can be turned this way or that -- doorways of perception, perhaps, but also surfaces for projections. The two that make the most impression are a sci fi starscape and a parody of the famous introduction to "Star Wars."

The Beatles provide a soulful soundtrack, and Martin Giles is the perfect director, intellectually agile and able to make better sense of all this than anyone around.

The producer is Caravan Theatre, which has lain low since its debut in 2007-08. In playing with Dick's clutter of ideas, I don't think it digs deeply, but maybe I'm too steeped in convention. It does have fun with Dick's fantasies, and it certainly brings him to life, if that's the word for a man who questioned whether life isn't really the ultimate illusion.

Ms. Stewart's work has previously appeared in Pittsburgh only at City Theatre's Momentum Festival. I once had the pleasure of handing her a $10,000 check when she won the national Primus Prize for an emerging theater artist -- she's a comer.

Her title borrows from Dick's last novel, "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer," published posthumously (appropriately enough). As to "800 Words," there's the principle that writers should introduce a new idea every 800 words, which Dick does, his mind sizzling. But in case there's further magic in this number, I've made this review exactly that long, byline and info box included . . . 798, 799, 800.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM


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