Review: Red Chariot by Gordon Dahlquist at Undermain Theatre
Updated: Jan 16
Undermain Theatre opens its 36th season with the world premiere of Red Chariot by Gordon Dahlquist, now playing through October 13th. The new play is described in the synopsis as a “science fiction thriller set amid the downfall of civilization after the Internet has created a mysterious Tarot Deck." My interest was piqued. I expected the play to provoke questions. In his program notes, Dahlquist further drove my curiosity when he wrote, “…Red Chariot is pretty much a documentary.”
The play asks a lot of questions: of and about the characters, and about humanity itself. The (mostly) unseen, omniscient Tarot Deck is a mystical God-like technology – and the play pontificates about humanity’s place within, responsibility to/for, and creation or destruction of the world, through such advancements. How much is the Tarot deck responsible for the calamity we find ourselves in? Is it humanity’s fault? Have we destroyed ourselves? Or are we controlled by an unseen, judgmental force? If Dahlquist is suggesting we view the play as a documentary, then the cruel, dilapidated shell of our world is the tragic result of our own misguided desires.
If it seems like I’m writing a thesis statement, well, that’s because that’s what the play seemed to want to do. With a deeply researched topic and an academic level of esoteric knowledge, Dahlquist has delivered a cerebral adventure. The questions the play asks, and the basis of the story are fascinating. An internet-created Tarot deck that potentially controls humanity? Super interesting. And personally, I’m into Tarot cards, Kabbalah, and apocalyptic ponderings. But as an audience member, I didn’t have time to grok all of the scientific and mystical references before we moved on to the next scene. Episodic and clippy, the play moves too fast for a philosophical discussion to really sink in.
Under Director Blake Hackler, the actors deftly unified the dense plot with a fierce determination to tell a unique story. I got a kick out of their moments of sci-fi performance tropes: freeze-frame reactions, fast-paced technical language, and urgent expositional dialogue. Molly Searcy as Sarah, the tarot “reader” is a grounded and self-aware madam. As Pierson, the hard-selling government shill, Anthony Ramirez delivers a dramatic fall from successful businessman to tortured prisoner: openly weeping in one scene, then seamlessly schmoozing and charming in the next.
The design team also exalted the sci-fi genre. Costume Designer Amanda Capshaw’s choice of bold colors (the red! the patterns!) and iconic sci-fi accessories (the goggles and white lab coats) took me back to my favorite television shows. Paul Semrad’s sound design was mysterious, looming, and targeted the fear of the ever-present threat of the Tarot deck. Russell Parkman’s set design defined the austere government office buildings with clean lines and crisp edges. The torture chambers and fallout basements were unified by the stone walls and the permanent stone columns of the theatre space. The extra tall chairs in the first interrogation scene offered a visual surprise.
Part of me wishes I could go back and see the play again. I’d like to test what I gleam from it with a second look. And also, because new work that pushes the boundaries of a genre will undoubtedly evolve the more it has the opportunity to interact with an audience. It’s important to do it and for audiences to witness it. For me, all of the elements that make fantastic science fiction were there. I’m just not sure if the words of the play meld successfully with the delivery of the play. It was all, you know, just - “sort-of-Heisenburgian.”
The world premiere of Red Chariot runs through October 13, 2019 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main Street, Dallas, TX 75226.
Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm.
For tickets, visit www.undermain.org or by call the Box Office at 214.747.5515.