She brings in physical clowning, masks, stilt-walking, freakish costumes (by Alex Jaeger), and a deafening, electronic-sounding noise (sound design, Sara Huddleston), along with wildly colorful and intense video projections that are both abstract and photographic (Hana S. Kim).
All of the effects combine to put us inside the head of the play’s central character who is trapped in an alternate reality of visions, dreams and painful memories — presumably every five minutes.
Mo (a deeply committed, anguished performance by Magic regular Rod Gnapp) was imprisoned for reasons unknown (but perhaps political in some way) many years ago.
At last, occasionally catatonic and in pajamas, he’s back home with his wife, Sara (Mia Tagano) and visited by his friend Ben (Sean San Jose) and Ben’s girlfriend Rachel (Carrie Paff). The three are the horrified witnesses (as are we) as Mo melts down.
Time fractures, and scenes repeat themselves in various forms, as Mo slips in and out of a distorted consciousness. He relives his incarceration, during which he was tortured by two guards (Jomar Tagatac and Patrick Alparone), seen here as traditional, bewigged clowns.
And he can’t escape recollections of a cruel stepfather and crazy mother (Maggie Mason in the latter role and several other guises as well).
Although we’re inside Mo’s mind, which is a miasma of paranoia, terror and misdirected rage, we can also see him from the outside. We see how he fell in love with his wife, how much he adores Ben and Rachel’s daughter, Molly (Shawna Michelle James).
McLean’s unsparing insight into the effects of isolation and torture (including sleep deprivation and waterboarding) is effective in ways that factual news reports coming from the Middle East can never be.
We don’t understand everything that’s happening to Mo — for that, we’d need voice-over narration — but we get the picture on a visceral level.
Unfortunately, a long bathtub scene in which the two prison guards wash a nude, deep-sleeping Mo as though he were a fresh corpse was so poorly paced (at least on opening night) that it disrupted the play’s relentless and steady flow toward a well-earned denouement.
On the whole, though, Greco’s lavish and imaginative staging, and the excellent Magic cast, beautifully dramatize McLean’s singular vision.
Every Five Minutes
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes April 20
Tickets: $20 to $60
Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org