Recursion in a post-apocalyptic bunker: Turret is a powerful puzzle box of a play

Recursion is “the process of defining a function or calculating a number by the repeated application of an algorithm.” The more you repeat it, the more refined it becomes. By its nature, a recursive structure can make a play feel circular…unless you look deep into its soul.

Set in the post-apocalyptic future, Levi Holloway’s riveting Turret is more than the trying to survive the end of the world drama it clearly is on the surface. Below that surface, it is a thoroughly engaging examination of masculinity as well as the need, the desperate need, for some kind of connection with someone else. It is also a puzzle box of a play, in which things may not be as they appear and even death might not be permanent; you will need to watch the entire show to begin to really understand it.

A Red Orchid Theatre’s ambitious production, directed by the playwright at the Chopin Theatre, will blow you away. The sheer size of the production answers the question of why it couldn’t be done at the company’s Wells St. home. Grant Sabin’s bunker-like design overwhelms the stage—and us—with multiple levels, a huge central hamster wheel (actually a home for an often-used treadmill), an upstage hatch-like door that leads to whatever is out there, a decently well-stocked bar, a wall on which to project what is on a computer screen, and even a piano. Combined with Mike Durst’s futuristic lighting and Jeffrey Levin’s intense wall of sound, this is a show that refuses to be ignored and demands your full attention.

Two men—Green (Michael Shannon) and Rabbit (Travis A. Knight)—appear to have resided together in this “turret” since Rabbit was just a baby. (A third, Lawrence Grimm’s Birdy, briefly but memorably joins them in Act Two.) The two are soldiers in a war against an unseen enemy that is constantly trying to breach the turret’s defenses, trying to keep themselves more or less sane with conversation, old music—shades of Fallout—and weirdly outdated technology that makes you wonder just how long they’ve actually been doing this.

The structure of the play is recursive; things keep happening and then happening again, changing incrementally with each repetition. (This is what creates the puzzle box: nothing will make sense in an absolute way until we’ve seen it all, but the tension—and the strange and awkward relationship between the men—is a constant throughout.) The repetitions and echoes allow us to learn more about the characters, especially within a motif that has Green quizzing Rabbit as he runs the treadmill wearing wired headgear that allows the inquisitor (and us) to see his responses as he thinks them. As with everything else here, these quizzes follow the same patterns, though the answers are not necessarily the same; it is in their alterations that we start to see more about who these men are to each other.

Holloway, both as writer and director, is not afraid of dialogue-free scenes. I didn’t actually time it, but I think there was no dialogue at all for at least the first five minutes of the play as we watch the kind of rote, repeated actions that men might engage in just to fill time. The music, too, is repetitive; they play it to stay sane and human, but there is ample evidence that one or both of them have already lost their minds…or even their humanity.

The antiquated technology—Paul Deziel’s computer screen projections have an 80s IBM feel, though there are occasionally filmed moments from the past that most likely are solely within a character’s mind—continues the motif of sameness. Nothing ever changes here. Even the whiskey on the bar seems never to empty. This place might as well be hell. (Maybe it is.)

The performances are all top-notch. Shannon’s Green, the older and more experienced soldier—and father-figure to the younger Rabbit (whose pejorative rank is “pollywog”)—is totally focused on his “mission.” Shannon is a smart enough actor, though, to allow honest emotions to filter through Green’s “commander” facade, humanizing the character enough that even the looped interactions of reality can’t keep us from empathizing with him. Knight’s Rabbit, always desperate to be trusted to go outside and “scout” even with the dangers posed by their enemies and a poisoned atmosphere, is even more tightly wound than Green. There is often the indication that he may lose control…and hints that this has happened to him before. With Birdy, Grimm has a character who has already admittedly lost his mind. (Hiding while watching your wife get literally torn apart will do that.) Unlike the others, he does not need to hold back and can really put it all out there. Birdy shows us where Green and Rabbit are likely to be heading, and it isn’t pretty.

This is not an easy play any more than the situation in which its characters find themselves is a normal one. Through Holloway’s clever script and his cast’s powerful performances, though, there is a lot to examine in this Turret.

Turret is presented by A Red Orchid Theatre and is now playing at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, until June 9. Performance times vary; check the website at http://aredorchidtheatre.org. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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