Concluding its 2013-14 themed season “Once upon a Time,” Luna Theater Company’s 80-minute Philadelphia premiere of BRAINPEOPLE, told in real time, is mysterious, disturbing, and challenging; but then director Gregory Scott Campbell was never one to avoid a challenge in Luna’s commitment to programming for “an adventurous audience.” Here playwright José Rivera was deeply influenced by the Magical Realism of Gabriel García Márquez (who mentored him at Sundance), and Campbell, in keeping with the genre, successfully blurs the distinctions between reality, imagination, and religio-philosophical constructs in his provocative story of three strangers sharing an unusual and costly dinner in the not-too-distant future.
Mayannah, the wealthy hostess in the midst of an urban dystopia punctuated by sirens and the regular round-up of its citizens, is commemorating the anniversary of her parents’ death by inviting Rosemary, afflicted with multiple personality disorder (the “brainpeople” of the title), and Ani, seemingly ordinary and unhappy, to her annual challenge: if the unknown guests can get through the morbid dinner party to dessert, each will be awarded $20,000. As the unusual fare is presented at table, the backstories of the three women are disclosed through monologues that reveal the lingering impact of trauma, loss, and poverty on individuals in an apocalyptic, carnivorous society, and an esoteric script that is dense with allusions to the bloody sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, the channeling of spirits, reincarnation, cellular memory, and the ‘60s adage, “You are what you eat.”
Jessica Gruver plays Mayannah (who, Ani notes, is “a little too Gothic” for her own good!), with an appropriately elegant style (costumes by Millie Hiibel), entitled demeanor, and enticing, self-satisfied, condescending smirk that is peculiar to the ruling class. Amanda Grove as Rosemary seamlessly switches personalities and accents in her array of distinctive dissociative identities, and Amanda Schoonover’s Ani provides some deadpan quips and down-to-earth normalcy–until she doesn’t. The unsettling sound design, eerie lighting (Andrew Cowles), and disquieting set (Dirk Durossette), which combines richly appointed Chippendale furniture with distorted window frames and an over-sized silver crucifix on an altar-like sideboard, help to transport the audience into the paranormal world of these enigmatic women. Their final surreal scene is both chilling and surprising, as Campbell’s direction builds the suspense till the very end and the story keeps you thinking well beyond its arcane conclusion. [620 S. 8th St.] May 3-24, 2014, lunatheater.org.