Words as Music: Sleep Rock Thy Brain and the haste of old age

Page 30 of Lucas Hnath's "nightnight."

Page 30 of Lucas Hnath’s “nightnight.”

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 1.52.52 PMSleep Rock Thy Brain, the Humana Festival’s arresting trio of sleep-disorder themed one-act plays using stage flight effects — yep, another entry in that hoary old genre!  — was commissioned for the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2012-3 Acting Apprentice Company.  No one in the large cast looks a minute older than maybe 25 , though all have completed, at minimum, a four-year college degree, one of the apprenticeship’s prerequisites.  But even as the show ripples with the youthful energy of, uh, youth, one of its most gratifying pleasures harkens back to an earlier era of performance.

The photo above this post is a page of the script from Lucas Hnath’s nightnight, the last of Sleep Rock‘s three parts. The piece is a funny account of the fraying relationships among three astronauts that stems from the insomnia one of them develops during their several weeks in orbit. You can probably tell from a glance at the page that the success of the mission — er, production — hangs on the cast’s ability to sustain a breathless and yet precise verbal tempo. There’s probably more room for error here than there is in an actual spaceflight, but not by much.

Seeing nightnight performed, especially in the many scenes that intercut the astronauts’ conversations with one another among their radio transmissions to Mission Control, all punctuated by time-lapse-signaling electronic chirps, is to recall the way the now-mostly-defunct genre of radio comedy programs, or classic films like Howard Hawks’s 1940 His Girl Friday (itself an adaptation of the play The Front Page), spun fast, often-overlapping talk into a kind of music. In a show that makes extensive use of noisy and undisguised flight rigs, this perfectly-timed rhythm of speech emerges as the most intoxicating special effect.

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