I Bowl, Therefore I Am: OnSite Theatre explores the redemptive potential of rolling the rock


That familiar authoritative crash of a twelve-pound ball against ten wooden pins is as satisfying as it is unmistakable. Set it to a rhythm of squeaking shoes on waxed floors and the crack and hiss of beer cans opening, and you're there. But rather than adopt a few choice sound effects and carefully selected props, the OnSite Theatre Company literally takes you there for an encore of its inaugural production, 2007's Bowling Epiphany: The Revival! — a three-playlet evening written by Carter Lewis and Dan Rubin and directed by Joe Hanrahan.

Adjacent to Epiphany of Our Lord Church, Epiphany Lanes isn't the biggest of bowling venues. We're talking eight lanes here. For the audience, the environs are intimate. If you're not pushed up against the fellow to your left, you're almost certainly grazing the mom to your right. More pressing (as it were) is the question of what's about to occur: Will we be expected to bowl? Then the lights dim and Donna Weinsting takes the stage, which (until now) was Lane 4.

"Just Bowl" commences with Weinsting delivering a state-of-the-union address regarding modern communication, highlighting the decline of genuine connections amid the constant barrage of superficial ones enabled by our devices and screens. Soon Elizabeth Birkenmeier and Antonio Rodriguez sidle into seats in another lane, and while Weinsting goes on speechifying they begin their own conversation, groping clumsily for the matter at hand, simultaneously discussing and exemplifying it.

It's likely that for some audience members (ahem), the scenario under discussion and its live-action manifestation — the notion that we've turned over our identities to online avatars that can "be" whatever we wish we were — hit close to home. How many of us have seen to it that our public face boils down to our single hippest moment, recorded in flattering light alongside a passel of fascinating hobbies and interests (some of which we may have actually found time to pursue in the days before we commenced "sharing") — a pack of lies, in other words, in which "doing" has come to mean "broadcasting about doing"?

Every now and then, the clumsy interlocutors dislodge foot from mouth, only to reinsert it as tightly as before. And after a while it dawns on us that there's a way out of this depressing cycle of self-analysis, and that it's right in front of us: bowling. Sure, it's an awkward endeavor for most, a frame-by-frame exercise in failure, intermittently punctuated by the satisfaction of a strike or spare. So, like life, we suck at this. But how much does it take to stop thinking, stop talking and just drink some beers and heave a ball down a slippery stretch of hardwood? So one by one, led by the more self-aware patrons, bowling shoes are laced, lanes selected. And we just bowl.

Two more playlets follow, further exploring the ways in which life relates to the lanes. In "Anarchy of a Pin Boy," Birkenmeier portrays a young girl whose Roseanne-esque mother forces her to bowl, then withholds affection when she performs poorly. Her deceased father reappears as the teenage version of himself, clad in vintage pin-boy attire, giving rise to a melancholic, backward-moving eulogy. Closing out the evening is "What Would Jesus Bowl," a lighter take on life in the alley wherein God and Satan (both of whom are women, and old friends) duel one-on-one to determine who's more adept at rolling the rock.

OnSite turns in solid performances and an impressive litany of touché moments, but all that pales by comparison to the sly manipulation that's under way here. Before you know it, you've fallen for the game. You've left the house, switched off your phone and — God help you — you're bowling.