Like Van Gogh, Poe or original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, science-fiction author Philip K. Dick is linked to a legend about his own madness that is as famous as anything he produced as an artist.
"There are so many labels on this man: visionary, drug fiend, recluse," says John Gresh, who stars as Dick in Caravan Theatre Company's local-premiere production of 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick. "To get into his mind space was a challenge, to say the least."
From 1951 to 1982, Dick produced 44 novels, dozens of short stories and an 8,000-page "exegesis" on the nature of the universe (supposedly supplied by a cosmic being called "Zebra") all while loaded up on illicit drugs and health-store vitamins. A cult of fans and a crop of Hollywood adaptations (Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall) came only after his death, so Dick lived dirt-poor in the San Francisco Bay area, mixing with political radicals and paranoid about government surveillance.
The inspired-madman idea anchors 800 Words, written by Victoria Stewart in 2003. It's set on the last day of Dick's life, but "time is not linear and characters morph into other characters," says Gresh.
Dick's novels were filled with twists, turns and epic head trips. If you're one of his protagonists, the best-case scenario is learning that other characters are aliens, robots, deities, hallucinations and/or dead. Worst-case scenario: You discover you are one of the above. Accordingly, in 800 Words, Stewart created the role of an 18-year-old drug-dealer who might be Dick's twin sister (who died at birth) and a fourth-wall-breaking appearance by the playwright herself.
Dana Hardy Bingham plays the one character who definitely exists outside Dick's head: his fifth wife, Tessa, who tries to bring him back from his divine vision. Bingham originated the role at the Iowa theater festival where 800 Words debuted. It's been staged several times; Minneapolis' CityPages included a 2009 production on its top-10 list.
"This is the kind of play [Caravan] was founded to do, something a larger theater wouldn't take a risk on," say Bingham, a company co-founder. She hopes to draw people who usually wouldn't see a play. "This isn't typical theater," she says. "I've been seeing theater for 30 years, and I haven't seen anything like this."