I hate it when I get cornered on the wrong side of old moral lessons — especially the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” commandment. But sometimes a book is just begging to be judged by its cover, and usually a quick look at the description on the back jacket confirms your worst fears. Usually you’re being promised something better than what you get. Rarely (very rarely) are you delivered something better than what was advertised. Higher Planes, written and performed by Paul Bonin-Rodriguez and produced by Jump-Start Performance Co. is one of those rarities.
I’ll freely admit that I was dubious about this piece. How could I not be? All I knew was that this was a one-man performance telling the story of John Hobson, a “flight-attendant, philosopher, and erstwhile designer” and that “the show examines closeness and distance in a mobile age.” Sounds like a real treat, right? Closeness and distance? I had a vision of a Muppet doing a two-hour version of “Near” and “Far” all set to the dulcet tones of pianist Rick Rowley as “language becomes music, movement becomes dance, and story becomes the stuff that carries the spectator to distant places and back again.” Yeah. Near. Far.
The fact that Higher Planes is advertised as a sequel to the “poetic and hilarious Fringe and Fringe Ability” didn’t really reassure me. “Poetic and hilarious” could mean about as much as “delicious and tasty” on the House of Tsang’s canned Chinese dinner for two.
Upon taking my seat and looking into the program I was horrified to find that this was “part 5 of a series of stories about John Hobson.” Part 5? That would make this The Empire Strikes Back of the John Hobson chronicles. Surely I wouldn’t get any of the references — and what about how John Hobson has “taken on class, race, gender, sexuality, consumerism, caretaking, and closeness … ” What’s left to take on? And how do you take on “closeness”? Right. Near. Far.
But soon after the performance began I was stunned and pleasantly surprised. What I had before me was an engaging performer and a central character (the afore-mentioned Mr. Hobson) who is a fascinating creation with a bundle of neuroses, stories both hilarious and touching, and a series of supporting characters who sometimes stand out with such adroit characterization that they deserve their own spin-offs. (The one that comes most immediately to mind is crusty old Mavis Deacon, an airline passenger who skillfully manages more than one mangled hand.) Bonin-Rodriguez is a brilliant storyteller with a good sense of characters and Rowley’s piano blends with the performance nearly seamlessly.
Higher Planes really does delve into deep meaning, but it also spins a good yarn — so much so, that I really would like to see parts 1-4 of Hobson’s stories. Comparisons to David Sedaris are inevitable, especially since this story revolves around Christmas, and the themes touched upon have been well mined by Sedaris (and others), but Higher Planes is original enough to warrant its own audience. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if that audience can even begin to guess what a treat is in store for them based on the promotional material, unless they’ve already seen the earlier chapters. Equally off-putting is the near-juvenile “Critical Response Format” (the audience is invited to snap when they agree with someone’s “critical” response) — which is especially galling because this piece doesn’t need the kind of protective coddling that defines “neutral” responses as starting with the phrase “I really liked…” Higher Planes doesn’t need that kind of uncritical catapult to get it airborne. It has a good enough engine of its own.