When you enter the Spanos Theatre, the spectacular set that fills the stage suggests that “CrossRoads” is going to be quite a trip. And it is indeed, as writer, designer and director — and Cal Poly professor — Al Schnupp takes his characters on an unpredictable journey through times and places.
It begins in 458 B.C. when Tobias, a failed playwright, is banished from Athens after he strikes Sophocles. He is presented by the “judges” with a clumsy wooden cart and commanded to set out on the road from Athens with his wife Helen, son Demetri and daughter Melina.
The set’s purpose becomes apparent as the array of colorful, wheel-like circles become portals to magical encounters. The family, dressed in white, navigates through history, interacting with historical, literary, and artistic characters that the audience may or may not recognize.
The numerous people they meet are all played by Elias Slaman, Torin Lusebrink and Rachel Murphy, who do a fine job of transforming themselves into each unique personality.
Christopher Riordan plays Tobias, Kimberlee Vandenburg is his wife, Devin O’Brien is Demetri, and Jenny Nelson is Melina. As the family members experience ups and downs, they draw closer together and each one develops as they grow older and, maybe, wiser.
Their journey through time is not chronological, although the first two groups they encounter are in the 1200s — a bizarrely costumed trio fresh from the Crusades — and a group of merchants on the Silk Road who tie them up, steal a wheel from their cart and accost the women. As the family members experience the future, they learn bits of history and hear prophetic words. The Silk Road merchants suggest that “someday the Chinese will rule the world.” Throughout the trip some things never change, such as buying, selling and war.
The travelers find themselves plopped into different centuries in each scene. In the 20th century they meet a wheelchair-bound Godot and his nurse on their way to an often-delayed meeting with two men who are waiting for Godot. (They don’t make it.) In that century they also meet Vincent van Gogh’s artist roommate who enters through a portal from the past, astonished to learn that van Gogh would become famous. He asks to join them, but Tobias explains that “the road is not our choosing.”
In 1608 they are surprised by the prophetic witches from “Macbeth,” who correctly predict a family tragedy, and a couple of centuries later Tobias is horrified to meet the British Lord Elgin passing by with marble sculptures he has looted from the Parthenon. (They are now in the British Museum.) The family also interacts with a German commedia dell’arte theater troupe and some Spanish soldiers. A pivotal event is a meeting with three characters in search of an author, left in limbo after their creator abandoned his project. They ask for “someone to make sense of us.”
This is a complex and multi-layered play. You don’t need to know the details of time and place to experience it on the level of the story of a family evolving through its experiences. But it can be enjoyed even more as an intellectual exercise that will work differently depending on your knowledge of literature and history and become fascinating as you recognize the people, times and places that are part of the journey.
As a project of the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department, this is a production that offered plenty of work experience for the dozens of costume and stagecraft students who did a stellar job of building the costumes and the amazing set. Thomas John Bernard designed the creative costumes, and Kathy Dugan is costume shop manager.
The show has adult themes and language.
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. today through Saturday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$12 to $20
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org