When Theatre for One’s roving, tête-à-tête box first rolled into the lobby of the Signature Theatre way back in 2016, the programmed micro plays related to each other through little more than their shared means of production.
What set them apart, and thus conjoined them, had less to do with the content of the plays, and more to do with the distinct staging particulars and particularities of Theatre for One.
Well, this godsend of a company upped the ante for their recent return to the Sig. Billing the six plays this time around — some recycled, some new — under one banner, the overarching moniker “Déjà Vu” prompts audiences to find connections between the plays centered around this titular theme.
Four of the plays — Before America Was America, #Five, Lizzy, and My Anniversary — all revolve around characters recalling specific events from their past that continue to haunt their being. Less concerned with literal versions of déjà vu, these plays explore how individual incidents can reshape the ways we move through the world afterwards. The lives of the characters now exist in the sustained, residual afterglow of the traumatic déjà vu that not only haunts them, it basically redefines, well, everything — who they are, how they think and feel, their perspective, etc. Time moves on, yet they keep being drawn back to the past, similar to how déjà vu operates. Hard as they try and retry, these sad souls can’t shake the unprocessed, and the plays chronicle their trying struggle.
Oh, and did I mention that one of the other plays is actually titled Déjà Vu? Putting it in proximal conversation with the first four plays acts as a thematic frame that alters how all of them resonate in juxtaposition. Rather than conforming to the pattern of detailing a singular episode in the character’s life, Déjà Vu speaks to the cyclicality of history, which creates a version of déjà vu that’s as haunting — if not more so — as what the other characters experience. Whereas those characters are wrestling with how to move on with their lives, Déjà Vu questions the very possibility of moving forward. Is progress real? Or is it an illusion, a nightmarish form of déjà vu?
Using “déjà vu” to umbrella all the plays anchors the characters in this grand sweep of history, one at the heart of the American Experiment.
And then there’s Sam Hunter’s Brick, which ultimately pivots around a single conversation from his life, repositioned as a jumping-off point of inspiration for Sam to fill in the gaps in his past through his beloved medium of theatrical expression. Though his grandfather starts as the sole character in the piece, he eventually and intermittently becomes a mouthpiece for Sam himself, who — like the aforementioned characters — is striving to reconcile his past, to understand where and who he came from, in order to be able to find and live in a more palatable narrative.
Fittingly, given Theatre for One’s prior appearances in New York, this collection of plays could also provoke a feeling of déjà vu in repeat audiences (the original French definition of the phrase: “already seen”). We see some of the same plays, they’re happening again in front of us, yet they hit us differently. The phenomenon of déjà vu, and theatre revivals, aren’t time machines into perfectly preserved time capsules; they change meaning by interacting with our ever-shifting circumstances, both personal and environmental. Like the characters, we’re forced to face how our relationship to a seemingly static past can upend our present conceptions.
The six characters across the six plays recount isolated encounters that enlighten just how much the past stays with us, bleeding into the future…mirroring the sort of isolated encounters that Theatre for One provides. We’re trapped in the small confines of their stories; even if we’ve heard them before, what lingering effect will they have on us after we step back outside? Will they cling to us, like they cling to the characters?