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Theater Review: Wakey Wakey

SARASOTA – Will Eno is not your typical playwright and I didn't exactly expect a conventional affair when I took in Wakey Wakey at Urbanite theatre in downtown Sarasota this week. Eno's work, which has been generously compared to Samuel Beckett and even Mark Twain, is soliloquy-heavy and his character's ruminations tend to lean toward the existential questions of life even when they don't attempt to affirm concrete answers.

His latest work clocks in at just over an hour but still asks much of its audience beyond the halfway point. We open with the play's moribund protagonist, named only as Guy in the program, prone on the floor, caught off guard, thinking he had more time. He almost begrudgingly gets into his wheelchair in order to start what feels like a presentation of some sort. It becomes clear quickly that this is a play about coming to terms with death, and that our hero is either already dead or about to pass. What is not immediately clear is the rules as to the realm that he inhabits.

He seems to be in a hospice and waiting for someone, who winds up being a caregiver of some sort (played with poignant tenderness by Brittney Caldwell). There is plenty breaking of the fourth wall as he addresses his audience directly as if they are indeed in the planned-for audience to his final moments. At times there are laughs within this dynamic, and at times there are palpable moments of discomfit.

None of these descriptions should serve as spoilers, as the play isn't about Guy's story–of which we learn almost nothing. It's about one man's struggle to put words to what he feels regarding his imminent demise. Despite notecards and an odd sort of multimedia presentation, our hero can't quite put his finger on what he wants to say, yet we manage to sense it in a very human and seminal way that is indeed the play's great triumph.

There are no saccharine exclamations or sentimental attempts to pass on sage wisdom, or if there are, they fail before they gain momentum. Guy, played to the nines by James FitzGerald, seems to struggle precisely because, despite his best efforts to organize something coherent to tell his audience, death is ultimately a sobering moment in which the nature of man and the absurdity of the human drama become crystal clear.

Nothing was as big as we thought or as small as we feared. The small moments and simple pleasures accumulate in larger piles than the triumphs and tragedies. Life really is about the little things. It's almost as though he wants to say something that would sound good on a meme or greeting card but knows that the thing he's feeling can't really be said at all, which is alright, because deep down it is already known by all of us. It just takes impending death for it to crystallize.

It's the way Eno manages to conjure a disjointed narrative from something so impossible to truly express by simply demonstrating just that, which makes Wakey Wakey a beautiful piece of stagecraft and demonstrates Eno's brilliance as a writer. He shows us things that seem impossible to show by writing them exactly the way they are in a way that is so seminally engrained in humanity that we can't help but accurately translate the experience, odd as it may seem on its surface.

The absence of sentimentality allows Eno to craft an upbeat ending that would seem like little more than a parlor trick, had it not been preceded by something so sublimely surreal. The play is actually hard to imagine without the somewhat hokey final moments that had everyone smiling as they exited after an otherwise grim affair.

This is not an easy production to put on and Urbanite's co-artistic director Brendan Regan did an excellent job in not only directing the play but in identifying and acquiring just the right actor to pull it off in FitzGerald. Indeed Urbanite's ability to recruit top-shelf out-of-town talent to cast regional black box theater says as much as anything could about it's growing reputation as an exciting and innovative stage.

Wakey Wakey is a very worthwhile way to spend 70 minutes, the kind of work that will have you chewing on things for days. It runs through September 2. Visit Urbanite's website for more information.