“Terrrrrr-ra incognito,” begins Chris Davis in his imaginative one-man play BORTLE 8, getting a deservedly professional staging as part of Tiny Dynamite’s A Play, A Pie, and A Pint series. “Terra incognito—the unknown. You, like, don’t know what’s there.” Davis invites us to find out with him.
Over the past few years, the writer-performer has built a reputation as perhaps the finest independent playwright in Philadelphia, creating and self-producing a slew of engaging solo shows, which he’s taken across the country and on annual pilgrimages to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe.
His plays are easy to like. His persona is welcoming—he talks to the audience as if we are humans in the room with him, not just props for his art. You overhear people leaving his scripted, wildly inventive performances wondering how much is improvised; how much is biographical.
Like Drunk Lion, my favorite of his one-man shows, BORTLE 8 takes Davis’s supposed real-life experiences (in Lion, a long residence in Mexico; in BORTLE a break up), and puts them through a mixer of dreamlike storytelling. Davis reminisces about a childhood in Oakland, California, being able to close his eyes and create any image he wants. He pictures his imagination as a ship which he can sail away on or watch sail away. He is not afraid to ride it where it carries him.
Covering the astronomical scale for darkness and the visibility of stars (the Bortle Scale), mundane work as a van driver, visits to Wawa, vacations to the Sierras, and much else, BORTLE 8 runs as a long shaggy dog tale. But flights of fancy—an audience member’s idealized corgi-owning life, a deep river adventure with astronomer John Bortle, a climb up a star ladder, the stubborn barnacles of past relationships—transform this from one man’s self-indulgent musings to a transportative journey of imagination.
Davis’s creativity extends to humorous wordplay and amusing asides. He has a tendency to spray jokes: many are hilarious; some fall flat. He turns serious at the end, but his rapid-fire conclusion doesn’t build into a satisfying crescendo. We are transported, if not transformed.
Most of my experiences seeing Davis perform have been decidedly low-key affairs: shows in apartments, bars, a Mexican restaurant (South Street dive Tattoo Mom’s is a kinda home venue for Chris). Tiny Dynamite’s production and Mary Tuomanen’s revisited direction give BORTLE 8 a professional polish: smooth lighting by Masha Tsimring, a sound design by Adriano Shaplin which aids in transitions, evocative projections by Nicholas Hussons. (Also, you get a free beer or mulled wine and a delicious English seasonal delicacy from Stargazy*.) His work deserves more such presentations.
The play has changed considerably since I saw it on a South Philly apartment roof, though it was hard to pinpoint exactly how. It’s tighter and funnier. There’s perhaps less focus on failures of relationships. This robs it off some emotional response, but enough remains in the streamlined show to give Davis’s fantastical journeys a philosophical underpinning. The focus seems to have shifted to a relatable sense of our struggle to maintain and harness our imaginations. If only we could all do so as well as Chris.
[Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, , no, not that door, the one a little further down, 302 S. Hicks Street] December 14-18, 2016; tinydynamite.org.
* Actually, the mince pie was almost too good—a gourmet tribute to the classic dish rather than a well-executed rendition.