Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright recently graduated from Columbia College Chicago. You can see him in The Living Room's upcoming DaDa Solo show, and you can hear his voice in the Audible productions of Locke and Key and The X-Files, as well as on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman
Pictured: Angela Horn and Raymond Jacquet. Photo by Cody Jolly.
By Aaron Lockman
When you walk into the Apollo Studio theater to see BOB: A LIFE IN FIVE ACTS, you are greeted with an appealingly simple set that evokes road trips and sixties nostalgia; classic rock music plays in the background, the severed tops of highway telephone poles hang from the ceiling, and four wooden blocks with maps of the USA plastered on them serve as set pieces. As the show begins, we are introduced to our four narrators (played charmingly by Angela Horn, Bryan Renaud, Brittany Stock, and Sarah Jane Patin), who alternate between cheerfully relating the life of the singularly named Bob (Raymond Jacquet) and transforming into the various characters Bob encounters on his journey through life.
And it is a journey: as soon as Bob is born (and subsequently abandoned) in the women’s restroom of a rural White Castle and adopted by the local waitress (who then leaves her hick town to take him across the country in a Chevy Malibu), the story takes on a mythical, American odyssey-esque quality that isn’t so much shown as it is shoved in your face. Bob’s adopted mother tells him he’s going to be great someday, and Bob grows up striving to do great things, to become a great man, to achieve something, dammit! The playwright (Peter Sinn Nachtrieb) is clearly making fun of a trope here – but one must be wary of this as a director, because we live in confusing times. We are oversaturated with tropes, and the line between parody and parodied becomes more elusive as the pile of reboots and remakes grows higher. If you’re going to present such a cliché, you’ve got to bring something weird or new or exciting to the table – and that’s where this production comes up short, by and large.
But none of this is the fault of the actors, who do rather well with what they’re given. The four Chorus members do an impressive dance, rotating through a smorgasbord of over-the-top characters, differentiating each one well while still having occasional heartfelt moments, managing to be farcical without becoming static. Angela Horn brings an endearing nervous grace to the character of Bob’s adopted mother Jeanine, for instance, and later plays a hilarious and prideful girl scout. Brittany Stock gives a warm human element to Bob’s brief love interest Amelia, which is impressive considering she’s written as a very blatant manic pixie dream girl (although to be fair, all the characters are manic pixie dream people). Bryan Renaud delivers some nice, sharp, pointed humor in every role he plays, from a bumbling small-town cop to an upright, English, bow-tied butler. And while Sarah Jane Patin is deliciously disturbing as the eccentric old animal trainer Bob encounters in a boxcar, she most shines in the scene where Bob (in a spacetime-stretching feat) seemingly has a five-some with three different waitresses and one waiter, in four different American small towns, all at once. They’re all effectively costumed too, in basic yet elegant monochrome as narrators, adding and shedding colorful costume pieces as they add and shed personalities.
Raymond Jacquet seems a little awkward and tentative as Bob, but he still swivels admirably from infant to optimistic youngster to jaded middle-aged misanthrope. The problem Jacquet faces is that Bob isn’t really a character. Instead, he is a capital-P Protagonist, a literal everyman who’s meant to represent everyone in the audience. His intention in the play is to discover the Meaning of Life and nothing else, and literally, every other character in the play is like this.
The characters are charming, yes. They feel like real people, albeit real people that speak more honestly and straightforwardly than real people do, who narrate and comment on their own lives as they unfold, and aren’t afraid to drop their philosophies and life stories onto Bob’s lap within seconds of meeting him. The heightened language and illogical truthfulness in the dialogue creates a nice effect; we’re seeing the world as it would be if people actually talked to each other, instead of the constant guessing games and dogmatic conversational rules we’ve got at the moment.
And there’s something appealing about that, but the sad truth is that if you talk about the Meaning of Life for long enough it stops sounding like you’re talking about anything at all. And as a person who dreads strangers talking to me in any capacity, much less dumping their emotional baggage on me without my consent, I found myself strangely detached from a great deal of the action. And when you’re detached from the action, plot hole questions start to creep in. How the hell is Bob able to live in a rest stop and not go to school for all of his teenage years? I started to think. How was Jeanine able to raise him in secret with no one finding out about it? How can any of these people afford to travel so much AND be able to eat without jobs? And of course none of these questions really matter. Of course, we’re in a heightened, mythical America where you can live entirely on the road and be considered inspirational instead of homeless, where the myth of Bob is more important than the questions of reality. But if the myth fails to engage the audience, the audience’s mind will begin to drift.
Now don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to love here. There’s some extremely witty dialogue, some valid points made, some lovely heartfelt monologues delivered straight to the audience, and some thoroughly endearing interpretive dance.
But all in all, BOB: A LIFE IN FIVE ACTS feels a little philosophically empty. We go to the theater to think, to be moved, to examine our lives by asking tough questions. The play raises these questions, and it answers some of them – but it does so by telling rather than showing, and so it fell a little flat for me.
I thought this was mostly the fault of the script. My theatergoing companion, however, loved the script and thought it was the fault of direction: he wished the actors had used the space a little more wisely, acknowledging the small theater and small audience and scaling back the energy a little, making the conversations sound more like conversations instead of displays, connecting with each other a little more. I basically agreed with him, but I’ve never been one to mind an overabundance of energy. The point, I suppose, is that this is all highly subjective. Too often critics try to be even-handed moderators of taste, when really we’re just normal theatergoers who enjoy inflicting our opinions on the world.
As we walked out of the building, the first thing my theatergoing companion said to me was “I’m so proud of myself!” And I replied “What are you proud of?” expecting him to say something about the show. Instead, he said, “I saved half of my burrito from earlier.” And he proceeded to take his foil-wrapped half-burrito from his pocket and eat it as we walked to the train.
Bob: A Life in Five Acts is a thoroughly enjoyable show if you like spot-on jokes, straightforward storytelling, some delightfully macabre death scenes, road trips across America, heartfelt honesty, and those versatile wooden blocks you used to have in theater classes. But if you’re looking for something that will challenge you to the point it distracts you from the burrito in your pocket, I would look elsewhere.
BOB: A LIFE IN FIVE ACTS runs through November 21st. For more information visit the-comrades.com.