‘The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other” is a unique theater experience. Unique doesn’t mean good, but it means interesting, and it’s a theater piece you may not like — or, after going with the flow, may really enjoy.
It’s unusual before it begins, as you take your Spanos Theatre ticket across the street to the UU Plaza, where you surrender two IDs to pick up a headset and a stadium-style cushion to sit on the concrete benches at the edge of the plaza.
The play — if it can be called that — by Austrian playwright and avant garde novelist Peter Handke has no words, no plot, no beginning and no conclusion. The playwright has explained that it was inspired by an afternoon of sitting by an urban plaza drinking wine and watching the people pass through the square. He found himself suggesting stories about them in his mind and sometimes connecting one person or group with the ones who had come before or after.
This production, directed by Josh Machamer, has that sort of stream-of-consciousness ebb and flow. An ensemble of 17 actors (though they seem like more) are dressed in white jumpsuits, and they assume myriad roles as they pass across the plaza. Sometimes they ignore one another, often they interact. The program notes 15 “episodes,” but they are not defined. Short stories seem to begin but they never end, overlapping with what comes next.
The all-white costuming makes the definition of characters even more difficult. As the action is all mimed, the headset accompanies it with music and sound effects, such as thunder, a passing jet or a swarm of bees. The sounds don’t always relate to what is happening, but sometimes they do, as when a person wearing a stethoscope hurries by and the sound of a beating heart is heard.
Props define some characters, such as a woman wearing red heels as she struts by, a blind man with dark glasses, old men dueling with canes, business types with brief cases. One man has a fishing rod, another a ladder.
Among the folks who pass by are a skater carrying a sail, a postman dropping his mail, a bride. These are fairly ordinary, but there are a few surprising images, like Moses with his stone tablets and Papagena with a bird cage. The imagery is sometimes surreal, as when Death in a black cloak appears.
Two characters are seen throughout the scenario. A janitor sweeps the area before the show begins and is seen off and on. Another person appears to be the observer. She occasionally tries to connect or interact with someone but is rejected. As time goes by, she discovers she has power over some of the people in the scenes.
Some of the vignettes are weird and puzzling and work to increase the audience’s interest. These strange little moments are actually the most fun. If you get caught up in the mysterious happenings and in connecting the imagery, watching becomes almost hypnotic because you don’t want to miss anything that will give you a clue. On the other hand, it may all be so confusing and amorphous that you give up.
The mime acting is enhanced by animated movement to the music in the headset, and it sometimes morphs into dance. Students who are not in the show occasionally walk or bike by the plaza, adding another dimension to the concept of the play.
In the program, quotations from distinguished writers are meant to relate to the theme of the piece, how we relate to strangers and what goes through our minds as we observe others. This is interesting experimental theater, and whether you appreciate the experiment or not is up to you. In any case, dress warmly, as it can be cold out there.