Do not ask what “Under Construction” means.
It is not a play to be understood. It is not a play to be simplified. It has no single plot and no set of characters.
Somehow, though, despite its refusal to comply to theatrical norms (or, more probably, because of it) the play is able to answer the question, “What does it mean to be American?”
The play, which was written by Charles Mee and is directed by Assistant Professor of Theatre Jeff Grace, will be performed in the Studio Theatre from May 16 to May 19.
“Under Construction” examines what it means to live in the U.S. through a series of mostly unconnected scenes whose characters span across time, class, gender and cultures.
The play can be about a prostitute talking about the joys of sexual diversity and gender-bending in one scene and then about a baseball team that sings and dances to “The Best is Yet to Come” in the next. This means the play is able to show more facets of American life than a standard well -made play might.
Because the play can be about a blogger who just needs to belong and a gorilla watching a woman dancing with a lamp, the play defies definition and refuses to define one standard American experience.
Charles Mee believes that “there is no such thing as an original play,” so he builds his play from pieces of other pieces. This shows in “Under Construction,” which takes pieces of pop culture from Norman Rockwell and reality TV to reflect the American experience.
A topic that wide and weighty could bog down a play, but its rapid transitions ensure this never happens. The audience is never allowed to fully process any one scene before the next one has begun. This breakneck pace could be painful, but it is not. Instead, it keeps the audience on their toes, forcing them to give every scene their close attention. Near the very end, this constant scene switching sags slightly, since without a standard structure it is difficult for disoriented audience to see the end coming.
Thankfully, as soon as this feeling sets in, the play rallies back to full strength and sweeps the audience into its climax where the actors transform the set into an art instillation piece — a move inspired by the art of Jason Rhodes.
The actors are one of the play’s real strengths. Each actor has to be able to rapidly switch roles and personas and every actor more than meets the task. Every actor throws themselves into their part with reckless abandon, which is a joy to watch.
The technical side of the play is just as much of an achievement. The set, made up of unfinished platforms, backed by blank pieces of wood and a large Coca-Cola sign, is a perfect blank backdrop for the diverse scenes that fill them.
The blank boards double as film screens throughout the play. This unique use of media sometimes goes solo, intersecting acting with clips from movies and real life, but more often, the videos accompany scenes and beautifully emphasize the action on stage.
This entire play is shaped by the fact that it was staged in the Studio Theatre. The space, which is usually used for student-directed theatre, often hosts more experimental fare than Harbach does, and so “Under Construction” feels right at home.
The smaller space also creates an intimacy with the audience, as if to say we are all Americans, we are still figuring this too.
“Under Construction” is intensely nontraditional, which might scare away some audiences. However, those who can drop their preconceived notions of what a play should be will find a complex multifaceted gem in Knox’s Studio Theatre.