What If If Only is more of a snack than a play, a tantalizing hors d’oeuvre of livestreamed digital theater that only whets my appetite for both more Caryl Churchill and the (so close I can taste it!) shift back to live performance. It raises more questions and thoughts and emotions than it can possibly satisfy in less than twenty minutes, either in its content or in its form.
The always great Mia Katigbak is at the center here, as S, a woman consumed by the loss of her partner (Bernard White, identified only as F). S is so deep in grief that she’s barely a character; she’s an emotional state more than a person, and the other figures in the play are even sparser sketches. Her grief conjures up a phantom, or is it a memory? And that phantom, or memory, spawns a dangerous hope: a hope that “if only” things had been could different could turn back into “what if”; a hope that wishing and grieving can change the past to create an alternate present, a better future. But then that hope proliferates into the seeds of too many possible futures, for the woman, for the planet, for her lost love.
Three men (Paul Juhn, Jon Norman Schneider, and White) and one child (Kylie Kuioka, a lovely breath of energy) represent S’s personal version of the multiverse theory, with possible alternative futures thronging the netherworld of possibility, desperate to be freed. Katigbak’s lover wants her to zero in on just one tiny chink in the cosmos; another wants to open to the door to a different way to address the catastrophe of global warming.
Is it all in S’s head? Is her grief causing the world to play tricks on her, or the world to shift on its axis and crack open into the multiverse? Is the world so close to the brink of disaster that only an alternate timeline can save us all? Are the other people in the play or merely metaphors? All of this is gestured to, but none of it evolves very far.
The ambiguities of space in the digital performance sphere underscore the ambiguity in the plane of existence of all the characters except Katigbak’s: she seems to be in an earthly room, and so do some of the others (Paul Juhn’s P is folding laundry, and we can almost see another person in the background of his space), while Schneider and White float in more of an indescribable ether. The production is co-directed by Les Waters, whose stage work often seems to exist on a two-dimensional plane, and Jared Mezzocchi, whose Russian Troll Farm took smarter advantage of the digital realm than anything else I saw last year, so the deployment of the internet’s two-dimensional space makes sense.
I tend to think Waters, in his work with actors, often chooses the bold and flat over the nuanced, not always helpfully, but in a piece this contained and this oblique, there’s not room for a lot of nuance anyway.
The world has been grieving so much of late, and What If If Only gives a glimpse into the ways personal and global grief can echo and multiply each other. Churchill manages to inject a note of hope, but the piece remains an idea or an outline more than a fully realized work of art. It’s moving, but full of promising ideas and emotional loose ends.