Mind games and heavy waters in Michael Merino’s 80-minute play

Conventional storytelling overboard! The aggressively bizarre play now paddling hard at the Shop at Fort Fringe takes the Titanic as a starting point for flitting mind games. With its dense theory, vaudeville punch lines and two sopranos warbling impenetrable interludes, the show comes at you like a rogue wave. Or a brain wave.

But, then, with the title “Hemispheric Dysfunctionalism and the Cortical Titanic,” you don’t exactly expect “The Odd Couple.” It’s a show for furrowing your brow and stroking your chin, for pondering the epigraph by French literary theorist Michel Foucault on the title page of the program.

Michael Merino’s “Squirrel, or the Origin of a Species” was an amusing intellectual caper at the Fringe Festival last year. But where that was a brainy play, “Hemispheric Dysfunctionalism” is simply — well, anything but simply — a brain play. Brief scenes tend to unfold theoretically, then with a practical comment or gag. Characters make remarks about natural law; then a waiter asks whether they are enjoying their filet mignon. Someone explains electricity in the brain (I think); then elsewhere the ship’s radio operator nervously asks into his microphone, “Are you there?”

This literary-philosophical excursion is set aboard the Titanic, so matters of class, gender discrimination and technology all roar to the fore and then dribble away in the wake. You can get a headache trying to keep up; you can also feel you’re finally getting your sea legs when Merino lands a joke or inserts a bit of text explaining how he wants you to think about his approach to engineering this play.

Kerri Rambow co-directs with Merino, and the project has the same zippy energy and discipline they brought to “Squirrel.” Ian LeValley is a commanding centerpiece as Capt. Edward J. Hazelwood (and yes, Titanic’s captain was Smith; Hazelwood captained the Exxon Valdez, only that was a different Hazelwood . . . so go the puzzlements). LeValley, also of “Squirrel,” has anchored a lot of heady work lately, and he’s good at it — intelligent, lyrical and funny, as required.

It’s hard to say that the show eventually harbors snugly; the cast of a dozen-plus is well-drilled, although the musical bits feel uselessly abstruse. Still, it must be heartening for Washington playwright Merino (who wrote this nearly 20 years ago) to have such a sharp team helping him navigate the heavy waters of his daunting 80-minute show. The crew makes a strong bid for seats at Washington theater’s avant-garde table; plenty of chairs, folks. Sit where you like.

Hemispheric Dysfunctionalism and the Cortical Titanic

By Michael Merino. Co-directed by Merino and Kerri Rambow. Music directed by Jason McCool and Philip McLeod. Lights, Colin Dieck; set, Brooke A. Robbins. With Kevin Cole, Misty Demory, Megan Dominy, Darius T. Epps, Jefferson Farber, Keith Irby, Patrick Joy, Philip McLeod, Bethany Michel, Rachel Rollins, Scott Sedar and Keith Waters. Through Sunday in the Shop at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave. NW. capitalfringe.org.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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