Stegosaurus: Three Cheers for Dystopia

The latest production of FaultLine Theater, “Stegosaurus (Or) Three Cheers for Climate Change,” not only possesses the most complex and enigmatic name of any of the company’s pieces to date, it is also unquestionably the group’s most intentionally-dissonant and jarring output of at least the past year. For as long as I have been aware of FaultLine, it has had a consistent self-description: “FaultLine empowers emerging artists to create vibrant new works. We turn fresh scripts and bold ideas into fully-realized, polished productions.” While this hints strongly at a fearless experimental streak, it doesn’t outright promise one, and the recent success of the company’s long-run, comedy-first musical, Tinderella, could easily lull you into the expectation of more lighthearted feel-good hits. Stegosaurus bluntly puts the lie to this, however, and you can rest assured that you will never see a version of it on Disney On Ice, unless the entire rink is an iconoclastic metaphor, with all the ice intentionally melting and the skaters twisting ankles and screaming while they wither under heat lamps.

Stegosaurus (Or) Three Cheers for Climate Change
Sango Tajima (Claudey)
Paul Rodrigues (Sach)
Donald Currie (Pilot)
Sabrina Wenske (Customers)
Written by Andrew Saito
Directed by Rem Myers
Set Design by Sarah Phykitt
Lighting Design by Maxx Kurzunski
Sound Design by Evan Wardell
Costume Design by Wes Crain
Prop Design by Brittany White

Fundamentally, Stegosaurus is an exploration of a possible near-future Earth that has careened past the global warming rubicon and into the first moments of a new apocalypse. Written by Andrew Saito and directed by Rem Myers, the play unfolds its background and plot nearly entirely through the dialogue of its two main characters: Claudey and Sach, a young couple played by the slight but explosive Sango Tajima, all sinew and brimstone, and her diametric opposite, Paul Rodrigues, a clodhopping dynamite cocktail of wild dreams and bubbling physical expressiveness that soars off the stage and palpably, repeatedly outstrips his character’s more modest ken. The show’s flyer compares itself to Waiting for Godot, had it been staged by the notable thespians Beavis and Butthead, and this is a perfectly apt description of the true machinery at work in the 70-minute production. In superficial premise, Claudey and Sach are selling off their bric-a-brac in a last-minute yard sale based out of their garage. The garage itself is an inclined set with believable perspective imparted by the surrounding structural framing, and it functions seamlessly to keep the actors consistently visible and to make the space seem bigger than it actually is, all while also displaying the requisite piles of detritus that define a yard sale, a monstrous set and props task for sure. In this well-constructed milieu, we quickly learn that Claudey desperately wants to buy a hot tub, which is an ironic financial goal, considering that the recent ambient temperatures have begun to make the neighborhood trees spontaneously catch fire, and Sach wants to fund a trip to an extreme latitude, where retreating ice sheets have reportedly been exposing thawed mammoths, beasts which he hopes will elevate his roadkill-taxidermy operation to professional levels.

As we are introduced to these goals, the first tiny beads of sweat begin to appear on the leads’ brows. The stage lights are an incessant yellow-orange, bearing down from wire-to-wire throughout the entire performance and grinding, without respite, into Tajima and Rodrigues. The duo makes up essentially the whole cast, and as such, they can never leave the stage and must engage in near-constant activity. Their very-real sweat thickens slowly but inexorably, eventually beginning to mat their hair and soak through their clothes. It is visibly uncomfortable, and the resulting delirious dialogue, vacillating between languor and akathisia, is entirely believable to anybody who has ever felt like a melting Dali clock during the doldrums of a summer’s dog days. This visual, dripping hourglass of global warming progresses subconsciously throughout the show, perfectly communicating the increasing franticness and inevitability of the characters’ situation. Like watching a magician in a glass box filling with water, the rising tide of panic is infectious, and the unpleasant tension seeps off the stage with teeth bared, slowly creating a miasma of fear and despair that is shared between the audience and actors.

The Clever and Beautiful Stegosaurus Set
Check out that incline and the perspective framing. Imagine the theater without that and how much worse it would be.

Meanwhile, a paying customer has yet to show up. Claudey puts on her best carnival barker act, and Sach furiously sets out taxidermy, but their Godot never arrives. In fact, there don’t seem to be too many people still living around them, though that is just a suspicion that permeates the air. As the scene elongates in its stagnation, excited revery turns to frustration, and frustration slowly to terror. Throughout this, Tajima and Rodrigues use their voices expertly to pack emotion between the lines, sometimes choosing anger and, other times, humor or melancholy or even wistfulness. The tangible role of these lead voices in Stegosaurus is hard to overstate: they are loud, demonstrative, and as physically-defining for their characters as even their costumes or their movements. The net effect of this powerful vocal environment, in combination with the penetrating lighting, is a complex and significant contribution to the intensity and immediacy of the overall production, setting up a disconsolate, grating tone in the background that portends the coming events. One by one, the bolts holding the wheels on can be seen to loosen and fall off: first we hear that they have run out of Benadryl to stop the itching from the heat, then we learn that there is almost no food, and soon after that we find that the electricity is not working and they are out of batteries. The all-American holiday yard sale that we were promised at the start of the play is slowly revealed to be a statue with clay feet, and there is no time left for tchotchkes. Neighbors who were initially disinterested in “bibelots and frippery” now return with scared eyes and fists full of cash, suddenly willing to pay top dollar for Sach’s road kill, just not in taxidermy form. Like a myopic gambler winning a game of poker on the deck of the Titanic, Claudey clutches her new piles of worthless money with wild excitement, the yard sale finally a success.

Sach working on his taxidermy
Not all stuffed animal bird toys grow up to lead a charmed life as part of the menagerie above an impossibly-adorable six-year-old’s bed. Some of them get repeatedly gutted every day on stage like some sort of sick reverse-Prometheus myth.

Amidst this emerging chaos, there are fragments of a quickly-fading idyllic life that occasionally shine through, snippets of the way Claudey and Sach used to be just weeks or months before the yard sale. At several moments, the two head toward amorous behavior, triggered by small things that clearly led to happy encounters in the past. But now each attempt is derailed by a crushing pragmatic concern that kills the mood: a dress-up game becomes too hot to play, a silly ketchup dousing turns dark when there’s no running water to wash off with, and eventually, hunger itself precludes pleasure. As the saying goes, there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy, and the play is set right around that tipping point. Because it does not take long for humans to become intolerably hungry or wet or cold, any descent into disorder will seem extremely fast when it occurs, even if the causal events were years or generations in the making. These moments of abrupt juxtaposition between the old life and the new are the most viscerally sad aspect of the play, tantalizingly bright lights of happiness now just out of reach and dimming by the second. Claudey and Sach are two people staring at the shards of a freshly-dropped porcelain cup, slowly beginning to understand the horribleness and permanence of the problem at hand but yet unable to shake the feeling that things were so right just a second ago.

Though Tajima and Rodrigues are undoubtedly the engine of Stegosaurus, a few small yet important roles are also filled, albeit in brief flashes only, by Sabrina Wenske (various yard sale customers) and Donald Currie (downed pilot who parachutes in). Both Wenske and Currie deliver solid performances, but they are unavoidably hamstrung by the limited nature of their parts, relegated more to the level of foils and human props than real characters. This is not necessarily a negative, and their second-class, object-like appearance may in fact be entirely intentional, especially given the ultimate fate of the pilot. All of their parts work well to highlight the fanciful, juvenile ignorance of Claudey and Sach, but the production overall remains a two-character venture.

Claudey and Sach
Claudey (here in her Stegosaurus costume, but no more spoilers) and Sach, possibly getting down to the Steggy song while trying to ignore the incipient effects of starvation and heat stroke.

Stegosaurus succeeds in playing out the first breaths of a believable apocalypse, and its device of a mundane but happy yard sale that devolves ever so slowly into sickening basic survival is used effectively to deliver a message that would otherwise be patronizingly obvious. That message, however, remains inescapably simple: humans are changing the world’s climate, and we may all die horribly because of it. The primacy of this point in the play is undeniable, and there are no subplots, secondary messages, or alternate possible interpretations to layer in depth. This leaves the work uncluttered and direct but, ultimately, constricted: a well-executed thought experiment on a carefully-bounded topic. This pure, deafening klaxon warning may well have been Saito’s intent when writing the piece, but I’d be excited in the future to see him channel his considerable talent through a more complex narrative arc.

Given that FaultLine’s self-professed ethos is to empower “emerging artists, fresh scripts, and bold ideas,” it makes perfect sense that the organization gravitated to Stegosaurus. This work is nothing if not a bold idea, an inventive newborn dystopia populated with whirling dervishes of fully-invested actors pouring their sweat and raised voices into the exploration of a concept that we all know deserves the attention, and it hits its mark perfectly. When the uncompromising, relentless lights finally go off at the end of the play, you will realize that you have been clenching your teeth and sweating, and like the proverbial frog in slowly-heating water, you won’t remember when you started. Or how long things have been like this.

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“Stegosaurus (Or) Three Cheers for Climate Change” is playing at PianoFight in the Tenderloin, and it has four shows remaining:

  • Thursday, 4/14 @ 7:30pm
  • Friday, 4/15 @ 7:30pm
  • Saturday, 4/16 @ 7:30pm
  • Sunday, 4/17 @ 6pm

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