Hayley Powell’s In Which I Set Myself on Fire is a noble effort to give shape to a complex idea — the collective reality of shared experience, the mental synchronicity that happens among close friends. On Thursday night I experienced a bit of synchronicity of my own. I saw two plays: In addition to In Which I Set Myself On Fire, I saw The Wave. I say synchronistic, because In Which I Set Myself on Fire reminded me from the opening montage of lines of Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel, The Waves, another kettle of fish from Ron Jones’ The Wave, but a work that shares its kettle with In Which I Set Myself on Fire. Or so it seemed to me — and this was a feeling that came to me a few times while watching the play.
The play is a montage of scenes that move back and forth in time. The characters are four young friends (“young” here meaning in their early 30s). Two of the friends, Sylvia (Robyn Novak) and Roman (Simon Powell), are married and have two children. Chris (Blair Bowman), an artist, is gay. The third friend is Rita (Carey Parsons). Simon is also gay or bisexual — he is definitely confused. Cole Guillian elegantly accompanies the production on cello, and Brandon Moore directs.
The play seems to be about the difficulty of maintaining relationships, honesty, betrayal, knowing oneself and, as I mentioned above, the collective reality that exists between friends. It is also about sex, disease and the consumption of great quantities of gin and vodka.
I don’t know Ms. Powell. But she has a voice as a writer that sometimes sings through. And though the play zips back and forth in time, I did not find it ever confusing — at least, I did not find it any more confusing than the characters seem to find their own lives. At times it swells operatically; at other times it nozzles into quiet moments of shared love and self-loathing — two emotions that seem here often intertwined.
What Ms. Powell is trying to do here is difficult. And I don’t think the play ultimately works. I say this not to cast judgment, but rather in hope that Ms. Powell will keep at it. Finding order in something that is by its nature is hodgepodge, as is the human mind (even more so with four minds together), is very difficult. But finding that order is play-writing — it is from that ordering that the play creates its coherent energy. Right now the play suffers from a kind of equalization of information: what information is revealed and when seems random. What information is important and what isn’t seems irrelevant to the play’s structure. That said, these fine young actors go at this play with all the emotion and comprehension they can muster.
PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE: 4:15 p.m. June 1, 7 p.m. June 3, 9 p.m. June 5 and 3:15 p.m. June 8 at the Art Academy commons. Find more of CityBeat's ongoing 2013 Cincy Fringe Festival coverage, including performance reviews, commentary and venue details, here.