It’s funny how relationships develop. The prolific and inventive writer-director-performer Mark Jackson and intense up-and-coming actress Megan Trout have been working together off and on since Trout was in college. Jackson directed Trout in the devised work Juliet at San Francisco State in 2010, when Trout was a student there, then in Metamorphosis at Aurora Theatre Company and Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players.
For more than a year, Trout and Jackson have been collaborating on a two-person performance piece, Now for Now, that charts the relationship of a fictional Mark and Megan over the course of 40 years. After several workshops, the play is premiering at Z Below in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood.
The two actor take turns recounting landmarks in their lives and in their on-again, off-again relationship, often offering very different perspectives on the same event. In one version, they’re father and daughter. In another, boyfriend and girlfriend. And in a third, teacher and student. They’re substantially the same characters each time, with most of the same milestones and chapters in their story. It’s just that the nature of their relationship has changed.
There’s nothing like parent-and-child characters abruptly morphing into lovers to set a tone of unease. Now for Now is peppered with intensely uncomfortable moments, from simulated sexual acts to the kind of cruel personal attacks that can never be unsaid. Trout sets the tone at the end of her introduction by saying, “So I’m going to go ahead and start by pissing myself in front of you,” and seemingly proceeding to do so.
In these highly personal, vulnerable moments, the onlooker’s impulse is to wince or look away—or rather it would be if the abstracted, presentational quality of the performance were not engineered to create aesthetic distance. Even so, the theater is often eerily quiet. It's as if the audience is holding its breath, relieved by the occasional burst of laughter.
The show includes frequent reminders that this is a carefully scripted performance rather than a confessional. There’s a tight, ritualistic structure to the back-and-forth narration, broken up by some beautifully melancholy and often funny dance sequences: an intense tango involving rock-paper-scissors and hand-slap games, a tender slow dance circling around and atop a stool.
Although the story is fictional, Trout and Jackson blur the lines by including a few autobiographical details of past pursuits and travels. They begin the performance frantically setting up their MacBooks and projection equipment while the seemingly “real” Megan and Mark give amusingly contradictory accounts of what we’re about to see. Meanwhile, the emotional baggage of the actors' fictional selves starts to emerge. Each version of the narrative involves the actors recalling events that happened when their characters were considerably older than the performers are now.
One characteristic of all the stories is that the two characters are apart more than they’re together over the years. He’s always traveling abroad. She struggles with addiction. This drifting apart and together again seems like a terrible thing when they’re a family. But when the characters are in a romance, it's the most natural thing. Interestingly, their relationship seems most emotionally raw in the teacher-student version, in which the ties between Trout and Jackson's characters are loosest.
The characters stay in touch largely through Skype. Although we don’t see those interactions, the performers make skillful use of iPhone and MacBook cameras to project the faces of one listening to the other’s story. The technology is most effectively employed when cameras project the actors in the process of writing emails or text messages. These moments are more interesting for what is typed and deleted than what is actually sent.
Ultimately Now for Now is largely about missed opportunities and regret. One advantage to seeing so many variations upon this theme from so many angles is that one version or another is likely to strike a chord and make viewers reflect on something in a relationship of any kind that they wish they’d done differently. One often repeated phrase that trails off without elaboration in the show --“I should have...” --is one of the saddest things in the world to have to say.
Now for Now runs through July 26, 2015 at Z Below in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit nowfornowsf.org.