Let's say a bottomless pit suddenly opened up in your bedroom. To escape it, you and your significant other have to leave behind the safety of your room, your home, your routines, everything that gives your lives structure, and fend for yourselves in the wild. What would happen to you? To your relationship?
That's the situation the two characters in Martin Dockery's play The Pit find themselves in. Piccolo audiences might remember Dockery — an actor, storyteller, and monologist — from the one-man shows, like Wanderlust, about time he spent in Africa, or The Bike Trip, about LSD, that he's performed here over the years.
In The Pit, Dockery and his real-life girlfriend Vanessa Quesnelle play an unnamed married couple who have found themselves stymied by the monotony of everyday life. When the play opens, the man is unable to force himself out of bed, and the woman can't decide what to wear. "They're trapped in their bedroom by their inability to make any decisions," Dockery says. "They have this dream, this desire, that if they could just get rid of all the complications in their lives and get back to nature they'd be free and unencumbered and happy."
They get their wish when the pit forces them out of their home, but living in nature isn't quite all it's cracked up to be. As they make their way together, free of all the things they thought were dragging them down, the couple comes to realize that their problems might have more to do with they themselves than they thought. "It's a play about any long-term relationship — the patterns you find yourself in, the tension that can bubble up from nowhere, and the idea that it's these outside pressures that are causing us to have trouble, instead of looking inward," Dockery says.
The Pit takes place in an absurd, surreal world, with characters to match. At the outset of the play, the man and woman are cartoonish, two-dimensional characters, flattened by the day-in and day-out sameness of their lives. When they run from the pit and escape into a different environment, they begin to fill out, becoming more complex with each line of dialogue. They become, as Dockery puts it, real people. And as with most of Dockery's work, although the play is very funny, it packs an emotional punch. "It's a comic, surreal world with comic characters, but it's also about something very real and serious — how do you get past these problems?" he says.
The Pit's origins lie two decades ago, when Dockery was getting his M.F.A. in playwriting from Columbia University. He completed the first draft of the play back then, but something about it didn't quite work. It lay untouched until he and Quesnelle brought it out of a drawer and took another look a few years ago. "I thought, 'Now that I'm 20 years older and have actually been in long-term relationships, I think I can rewrite this and make it honest," Dockery says. According to Quesnelle, not to mention reviewers all across Canada where The Pit has toured, Dockery has succeeded. "I feel like it's written in a way that we're able to put our own imprint on it, and audiences have been able to do the same thing," Quesnelle says.
This is Dockery's fifth year performing during the festival, though it's the first time he's brought The Pit. He's known for his highly expressive delivery style, which always makes for an energetic night at the theater no matter what show he's performing. In his latest offering, that expressiveness is taken to its extreme. "They [the characters] have extreme highs and extreme lows," Dockery says. "They're experiencing emotions to the hundred percent, and there's lots of physicality with those emotions being expressed through the bodies."
The Pit is the second show that Quesnelle and Dockery have performed together, and they've got a third one, Moonlight After Midnight, in the works. Dockery will also be performing a second show, The Surprise, during this year's Piccolo Fringe. The Surprise is an autobiographical one-man show about Dockery's discovery that he has twin siblings 36 years younger than he is — and in Vietnam, no less.
The couple has been on an extended tour with The Pit since last May, and their Charleston stop will be the final one. After that, it's right on to Moonlight After Midnight, which they will premiere in June. So it's fair to say that Dockery and Quesnelle can see how easy it is to get stuck in a routine together, even if that routine — traveling to new places each month — might not seem like one from the outside. Those experiences just help them bring more to their performances in The Pit each night.