What can be said about a play that rarely feels like a play?
“Race of the Ark Tattoo” is an incredible cross between a garage sale and an interactive performance art piece. It blurs many lines with only one “character,” a narrative so incredibly loose that it could more safely be called a collection of vignettes and no real stage. The play forces the audience to question artistic boundaries while consciously wondering how the actors are pulling it off.
The production succeeds in pulling the entire act together almost seamlessly. “Race of the Ark Tattoo” draws the audience into the carefully woven story by having them select objects from around the room, each of which becomes the focal point for a short tale. Incredibly polished but seemingly impromptu, the show succeeds at pulling this gimmick so far above the level of being a mere play. The fact that actor Matthew Maher is simply an actor gets lost within the work, truly the sign of an engaging narrator. Although the act is not always enjoyable, it is unquestionably intriguing.
Piece by piece, the narrator tells about his disturbing life – from his girlfriend in a coma to his childhood – while he plays dual and oft-confusing personalities as his own foster parent and the foster child. Always unpredictable, Maher does a fantastic job of changing tones to create a mood that it is at times frightening. And, although the play is only one hour and 20 minutes long, the absence of intermissions or breaks only heightens this tension.
Disappointingly, “Race of the Ark Tattoo” has no real climax and fails to end with the conclusion that is foreshadowed. The crafted tension finds no release. But the true fulfillment comes after the play is over, analyzing the hidden meanings and subtler details. There is no simple answer for those curious about the significance of the title. Attention should be paid to the use of every word of the title during each segment of the play, as the words are used extensively and cleverly throughout.
The junk-sale/flea-market set works beautifully to give a backdrop that both contrasts and highlights the shyness and madness of Maher as he alternately rants and quietly reminisces about his history. The variety of objects, from quilts to lamps to a gumball machine, surrounding the audience and the relative close quarters bring the viewer further into his world of extremes.
The structure of the play, object by object, allows for remarkable flexibility in the storyline. At the same time, “Race of the Ark Tattoo” forces the audience to confront its own world.
“The Race of The Ark Tattoo” is directed by Melanie Joseph, the creator and director of the Foundry Theatre, and it is written by W. David Hancock, hailed by The Village Voice as “the most audacious and provocative playwright to emerge on the Off-Broadway scene of the ’90s.” “Race of the Ark Tattoo” runs at The Studio Theatre until Sept. 23. But make sure to bring some additional money for a souvenir.