The praise of the Undermain Theatre’s production of Port Twilight primarily centers around, well, the production. Not that it’s undeserved. The play is a three-ring circus of sliding curtain sets, complex sound, light, and video design, and a cast that carries its weight playing scientists, rabbis, mythical demons and, yes, even an organ grinder. Port Twilight is not unlike Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a sci-fi/fantasy-noir bathed in the kind of retro-futuristic motif that typically leaves me weak in the knees. So it’s understandable that the Dallas media want to gush about the Undermain’s accomplishments; small, well-executed, experimental theater isn’t as common in these parts as many would like. Yet too many reviewers almost refuse to examine the play itself, completely satisfied with the euphoria provided by such a technically ambitious presentation. Call me spoiled, but I expect a well-executed, entertaining production. I want more than the superficial extravaganza, and unfortunately that’s where the show’s flaws lurk.
Port Twilight’s a happening place. When it’s not overrun with scientists breaking into choreographed dances, this fictional town in the near future is the shooting location for the ambitious space opus of an underachieving B-movie director (local veteran Bruce DuBose). Around any given corner, you might find find our narrators Dack and Donna (Jonathan Brooks and Shannon Kearns-Simmons, both aggressively charming), two members of the Off-Planet Message Exchange, hopelessly trying to contact aliens. Or you may stumble upon a rabbi and his servant (DuBose again, with Ian Sinclair) on a mission to resurrect an ancient god capable of healing their loved ones and their town. Some stories weave together nicely while others, like that of the rabbi, have difficulty finding their place in Port Twilight’s tapestry.
The play’s spectacle is so overwhelming that you nearly overlook flaws like this. It dazzles and entrances with an ever-shifting scenic design by Tony winner John Arnone; parts of the set exude the patented drippiness of noir, while others feature such bizarre perversions of science-fiction, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were plucked straight from my childhood nightmares (a notable triumph is a robot outfitted in metallic armor, multicolored glowing cones that spike from his shoulders, and a giant full-head mask of a stone-faced statue. “Trippy” does not even begin to describe him).
Equally as bewitching is Len Jenkin’s zippy, atmospheric dialogue. There’s a beautiful lyrical quality to it—too beautiful, actually. I found myself distracted and almost hypnotized by the rhythm and rapid delivery of the narration, and soon realized I hadn’t truly heard a single thing that had been said. It’s not the worst thing in the world to lose yourself in the language of a play, but when so much work seems to have been put into the words and imagery, you feel guilty when it just washes over you. I feel like Jenkin’s script would have been better read than heard.
Taking the elevator back up to ground level (the Undermain is literally an underground theater) and walking back onto the streets of Deep Ellum, the play’s whirlwind of poetry, sound, and scenes left me thinking, “I can’t tell if that was good or bad, but man, was it crazy fun.” Just like all those local critics, I had the euphoria clouding my thoughts. Days later, the post-performance glee died down but I still found it difficult to dig beneath the play’s surface. It’s almost as if Jenkin was trying to make Port Twilight impenetrable. Beyond the sights and sounds, the words the characters speak are so densely packed that they discourage comprehension, impressing more than enlightening. We’re just supposed to trust that these people know what they’re talking about and that their eloquent rants deserve our respect.
But once I did penetrate Port Twilight’s defenses, I found that the play does indeed pose a few interesting philosophical questions regarding “the future.” Despite having the alternate title The History of Science, the play is all about the future, or whether we’ll even have one. The B-movie director’s new sci-fi film allows characters to ponder and compare the future portrayed in blockbusters and the future that might actually come about; they bring up ideas that are much less sexy than Hollywood’s, but much more exciting because of their roots in reality. Monologues touch upon immortality via technology, body-less human beings, and—the elephant in the room—the threat of nuclear destruction. Ultimately the play reaches one conclusion: There’s no point in stressing about the future at the expense of missing today.
Sounds nice, but the play doesn’t feel sure of its message, muddying it towards the end—not as a challenge to viewers, but more likely a result of Jenkin’s uncertainty of his own point. The script pushes a carpe diem mindset (the scientists even break into a “Science Dance” while singing the 1940’s tune “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”), yet many of these characters eventually ignore this promoted mentality and revert to their safe, meaningless, former ways. This could have been ironic or tragic if the play didn’t appear to endorse these reversions. The director gives up his hopes of filming his ambitious, reality-based sci-fi epic and instead opts to make another one of his “boy meets girl” pictures. In what’s supposed to be a sadly resolving monologue, his lead actress ponders her own future and the future of humanity, then finally tells the director to go ahead and take the easy route. “Write a good one, baby. Put in a joke or two. Let ’em laugh in the dark, and let the boy get the girl.” Somehow, I’m supposed to believe that playing things safe qualifies as “seizing the day?”
It’s confusing, insecure logic like this that disappoints once you dive beneath Port Twilight’s impressive surface. Technically, the Undermain Theatre’s production is bold and imaginative, but Len Jenkin’s underlying philosophies are as messy and unrefined as they are initially intriguing.
Port Twilight or The History of Science is no longer playing in Dallas, but check out playwright Len Jenkin’s official site for possible future dates.
Jonathan Pacheco is a current web developer and future freelance writer. He blogs and reviews films at Bohemian Cinema.