Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007


Hotel Oracle
Written by Bixby Elliot
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Through March 31
56 Walker Street

The cast of “Hotel Oracle,” from left: Jim Kane, Deborah Martin, Paul Keany, Raymond James Hill, Tessa Gibbons and Katie Honaker

A search for answers at the Hotel Oracle

By Vivienne Leheny

“Don’t look back” — the deceptively simple directive that Orpheus tragically failed to observe — is a refrain repeated by several characters in “Hotel Oracle,” the new play directed by Stephen Brackett and running at Walkerspace in Tribeca through March 31st. It could also be the mantra for The Sum of Us Theatre Company, the youthful group that created the play and prides itself on challenging conventions and pushing the boundaries of theatrical exploration.

Five strangers arrive at Hotel Oracle for an event — undefined for the audience but nonetheless fraught with foreboding. A man greets them but can provide no solid answers to their many questions, other than to assign them each a room (and in one case, he can’t even do that).

Madeleine is a deeply conflicted but ambitious journalist while the dazed Angie is in her eighth month of pregnancy (a fact she frequently forgets, until someone reminds her). Lucy is a scientist aching for emotional experience while Buddy’s small facial scar suggests a secret that he hugs close, one that the rapacious author, Mack, just can’t leave alone. Trapped in the amber that is the Hotel Oracle, these strangers rub and chafe against one another.

What these characters share is an obstinate desire to “know” — to know why they are what they are, and whether knowing will make life kind to them again. Orpheus, the Man, is also here, and his mythic music is played not on a lute but is instead a vast soundscape — cracking thunder, silver-sounding rainfall, the pulse of a firefly — captured in mason jars and stored on a shelf in the hotel where he waits. And waits. And waits for a Eurydice, who will never come.

“Hotel Oracle” is an example of The Sum of Us’ mission statement in action — to tell new and undiscovered stories while observing “true ensemble work.” Over a period of two and a half years, the playwright Bixby Elliot and six of the company’s acting members painstakingly built the play from the ground up. Borrowing from the collaborative and improvisational theatre techniques several of the company members had learned while working with acting teachers Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, the Oracle group began meeting in mid 2004, intending to discover a play through collaborating together.

With no particular theme in mind, no source material as a guideline (Orpheus had not yet emerged as a consideration), Elliot had the actors respond to a series of questions ranging from the first-date-kind (“What’s your favorite color?”) to the therapist-kind (“What three things really scare you?”). The group therapy expanded into several rounds of intimate discussions about what moved the actors and what terrified them.

From this collective primal scream, Elliot culled images and ideas that he mirrored back to the cast in the form of directing assignments. Over the next several months, each cast member was charged with creating very short one-acts, based on conceptual statements Elliot would provide them, and directing their fellow cast members in their plays. What emerged was a desire to explore archetypal characters and discover the potential for modern myths. The cast then took a break while Elliot went off to complete that most solitary of jobs: writing a play.

The vibrant and attractive cast — Tessa Gibbons, Raymond James Hill, Katie Honaker, Jim Kane, Paul Keany and Deb Martin — are passionate about the composition process. Honaker said the great benefit of collaborative work is the authentic connection it creates to the eventual text. “You’re so intertwined, that there’s no separation. For every line in this play, I think each of us experiences flashback moments, things we recall from the years we worked on it.” Martin jumped in, adding, “It’s exciting, but also scary. There’s so much of us on that stage.”

Despite the potential for too many cooks spoiling the broth, a final dress rehearsal demonstrated that “Hotel Oracle” is a remarkably coherent and provocative production. Elliot has preserved a sense of the specific and personal in a story that encompasses such eternal musings as whether the answer to the most soul-searching question can provide peace, if not actual happiness, and whether it is truly possible to connect with another in a lasting or meaningful way.

The Sum of Us was founded in 2002 by a group of actors who had studied and worked together at the Atlantic Theatre Company. They took David Mamet’s words to heart — “Create your own work!” — and “Hotel Oracle” is the happy, if long-gestated, result. The company’s 2002 FringeNYC production, “Death of Frank,” won the festival’s playwrighting award for Steven Belber, and was followed in 2004 by a production of a new play by Denis Johnson, “Hellbound On My Trail.” At the same time, The Sum of Us was developing “Hotel Oracle” in workshop.

The company is nothing if not ambitious, and has set a goal in this next year of identifying nine new plays for eventual production. It is also a proud member of COLLECTIVE P.A.S.T., a consortium of four emerging theatre companies, all with ties to the Atlantic. They are quite different in their mission and production goals, but they share a commitment to supporting one another in their work.

“We want to entertain the audience,” said Martin. “But more than that, we want to leave them thinking.”

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