Translator Katharina Hehn opted for light duty when she took on Request Programme, the new Ion Theatre Company entry by Germany's acclaimed Franz Xaver Kroetz. There's only one character, after all—and except for a silly TV infomercial and some intervals between tunes on a classical-music radio show, there's no speech. Kroetz is an actor, too, so maybe he was inspired to create a super-tough piece, robbing the actor of words, the most vital weapon in a performer's arsenal. Meanwhile, still no word on whether Hehn had to move to a downstairs unit amid the hefty pay cut.
If she did, her digs might have looked like what the play's central figure rents as an extension of her exhaustively mundane existence. Miss Rasch lives in a fishbowl the size of a tie tack; the bathroom has only a toilet, meaning Rasch has to tend to most of her hygiene at the kitchen sink across the room. There's a nice irony in that, because Rasch is as fastidious as anybody you'll find. Such quirks keep this play pretty interesting—and Linda Libby's very fine performance keeps Ion in the loop as one of San Diego's major cultural attractions.
The 65-minute piece charts Rasch's life—nay, her emotional near-bankruptcy—as she arrives home from a typical day at work. We're never given details on her job, but that's OK. Kroetz holds her out as a poster child for all whose lives gasp for air under the weight of the marginalizing, sometimes brutal phenomenon that is the human condition. No wonder this character obsesses over every detail, from hanging up her coat to trotting out the fixin's for dinner. These may be piddling acts, but they define her, to the same extent our contact with friends, family and the world defines the rest of us.
That radio show is virtually Rasch's only concession to the outside. As she listens, she's transported to a place in which she breaks her earthly bonds—and she can barely keep a thought in her head amid her excitement. Watch how she places her napkin on her lap with an understated flourish; note the vigor with which she chews her food and attacks a giant embroidery project. She even expunges cigarette smoke in a silent cry of exhilaration. But damned if she's not back to square one the second the program's over—in the final scene, the shoulders slump in capitulation to tomorrow's grim prospects at work, perhaps for the last time.
Libby and director Glenn Paris have teamed for some actorial mastery here, and they got some serious help from J.D. Steyers, who deejays the radio show. The mildly unrefined East Coast timbre, the incessant rasp, the almost irreverent approach to the music: Steyers adds a marvelous bit of color here—and while I'm sure Rasch thrills at the sound of his voice, I'm saddened she chooses no outlet to share that thrill with others.
Fine stuff here from everybody involved (including light man Brylan Ranscht), except for one thing: Ion's website says this is for mature audiences and that no one under 17 will be admitted. There's some brief rear nudity above the waist as Rasch readies for bed, so I can appreciate Ion's sense of caution. But to suggest that every 16-year-old in the universe couldn't handle that, or even the toileting scenes that dot the action, strikes me as a tad presumptuous.
I say let the young'uns in, at all ages, with a parent or guardian. If the latter are willing to take the kids, chances are they're responsible enough to field their giggle-tinged questions. This review is based on the opening-night performance of May 24. Request Programme runs through June 14 at The Lab, Academy of Performing Arts, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road, Mission Valley. $20.50-$23.50. 619-374-6894 or www.iontheatre.com.