A Sign of the Times – Steve Helper and the moment before we act. (Theatre Review)

The final crushing moments in Waiting for Godot are:

VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?

ESTRAGON: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

If emotional and intellectual paralysis is the great theme of modern literature, Steve Helper is suggesting they are the great theme of modern life. The great catch cry of our “Man” in Steve Helpers A sign of the Times is what he so often repeats to his wife: “don’t worry. I didn’t do anything.” Helper wants us to look past that paralysis, through the mine field of intellectual choices we have about how we approach our life, to the power to act.  What is it that has us take action?  What will it take for us to act, and how to we work out what action is the best to take?

Sign Of The Times_dress rehearsal_NIDA Studio Theatre

A sign of the times is a one-man act, written and directed by Steve Helper.  Our Man, completely embodied by Scott Irwin, has recently suffered some tragedy in his life, and has therefore chosen to step out of his previous existence as a university lecturer to become the man at the road side of a construction site who holds the lollypop sign that directs the traffic. His sign only says “Slow” or “Stop”.  There is no “go” and there is no green on this sign. Our man uses the sign to hide behind as he contemplates life, the universe and everything else, but mostly tries to make sense of a great tragedy that brought his already rather stagnant life to a grinding halt. But our man is not bitter.  He is just deeply sad, although even that sadness can’t hide his pure joy and wonder at the beauty of the universe and all it contains.

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Through a roller coaster of a first act, Helper carries us through various philosophies, scientific theories and contemporary age cliff-edge-cries as he tries to make sense of the incomprehensible death of a child and the subsequent dissolving of his marriage.  She said “Don’t follow.  I need time.” The Man will contemplate time, what that means, quoting from The Road Less traveled by Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Martinus Scriblerus and Summer by Alexander Pope, and The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot. He will examine Einsteins theory of time in reference to the hand of fate, and compare faith with pure maths, as he wonders aloud what forces coalesce to bring this exact time and place into being. As these contemplations flow, the Man breaks through the fourth wall to involve the audience in the question of how they got to this place and this time in this precise way?  What events conspired to bring us together in this room? What was fulfilled, and more importantly, what might be missing?  Did we use time, waste time, have time, lose time, beg, borrow or steal more time? As our Helper’s Man becomes our own Man, we grow a deep involvement with the character, sweeping us up and over the barrier between audience and actor, between observation and the act.

Sign Of The Times_dress rehearsal_NIDA Studio Theatre

But all this heaviness is couched in a cheer that stumbles blindly from the character, infusing his words and lifting the mood of the room to an ecstatic joy.  The whimsy of clocks that refuse to stop ticking, tarot cards being about risk management, the imagination being the key to success, and clever lines like “I’m more powerful than God because there is no question that I exist” lighten what could be a dark and heavy mood. In many ways Steve Helper presents us with a modern-day biblical Job, a man not on top of a mountain, but crouched behind a sign, crying out to a god, his eloquent questions born of pain and loss. Our Man wonders if his prayers weren’t prioritized because he isn’t a frequent prayer, and he suggests when scientific medicine fails, what else is there other than miracles?

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It is this combination of Steve Helper’s dynamic dialogue and Scott Irwin’s endearing, mature warm presence that bring A Sign of the Times to enthusiastic life, reaching into the mind as well as the heart. Act two brings the audience into a more metaphysical realm as the real questions of the play come to life, in a less ordered and more difficult to pin-down examination. If act one reminded me of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, then act two takes us into the realm of No Exit, and Sartre’s great cry of responsibility for our actions. The subversive message of A Sign of the Times is that to act is not enough. One must choose in good conscience, the right act. In this way A Sign of the Times doesn’t just pour the current great themes of our world at our feet, but scrambles them in a meta-narrative that replaces the dramatic act with the day-to-day act, the audience with the principle character and the history of theatre with a prophetic look at the future. There have been many great fortune tellers, claims our Man: Orwell, Kubrick, and Elliot, just to name a few. We can include Beckett and  Sartre in that list, along with so many great theatrical themes Steve Helper adds in a rolling creative ball of time.

Sign Of The Times_dress rehearsal_NIDA Studio Theatre

Many hands go into makeing something of even the most simple of productions.  Sian James-Holland’s lighting is all mood, as shifts in thinking have their own signposts, the lighting fluent with the flow and crash of the Man’s inner tide. Darrin Verhagen’s sound takes us from the edges of a busy construction site, through to a forest being lost to logging, through to the pin point of a moment in time when everything in the room floats in the epanding universe. The lights and sound work together to create an atmosphere as powerful as a stage set itself, all the while enhacing rather than detracting from the clever rapid word play that throbs at the heart of A sign of the Times. For a production with such grand themes, it is all a joy to follow, easy and witty, rapid and fun.

A Sign of The Times is on at the Parade Theater at NIDA from the 11th through to the 21st of September.  You can grab your tickets here.
The Images in this post are courtesy of Wendy McDougal.

Sign Of The Times_dress rehearsal_NIDA Studio Theatre

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