Let's get one thing straight: Red Chariot by Gordon Dahlquist is set in the future, but we don't know when that future is. It could be 20,000 years from now, or two weeks. Much like his previous premiere at Undermain Theatre, Dahlquist's newest work plays with our perceptions of what is acceptable, and what we choose to accept.
In this case the dilemmas are technology-based, though with a touch of paganism. There is a set of tarot cards that causes strange and unfortunate happenings to those who read and draw the cards, but upon which society relies.
One such reader, Sarah (Molly Searcy), is our first point of contact, and she's strikingly costumed in crimson and set against a blood-red background (Amanda Capshaw's costumes and Russell Parkman's versatile sets are excellent throughout).
Through Sarah's lengthy monologue and then another immediately after by Black (Kristi Funk Dana), we learn that one woman is accepting a new, vaguely described job, and the other is jockeying to take control of her already established career. What fields they are in ... well, it's never fully explained, but the insinuations aren't good. Death is on the table, but it's not the romantic, eloquent death of poetry; rather a hasty action necessary to conceal ambition.
Where act one is wordy and dense, act two is full of action. There's time travel and violence and top-secret scientific experiments of the mind, and everything rushes to a frantic conclusion before it's really explained.
But spelling things out for the audience isn't Dahlquist's style — he trusts that you'll keep up, and director Blake Hackler maintains a stable grip on the unwieldy ideas and smooths them into easily digestible, if not fully explained, tidbits.
It's hard to boil down Red Chariot's plot, and perhaps you don't need to have all the answers to enjoy this puzzle. There are enough moments that ring scarily true and enough momentum that two-and-a-half hours passes in a pleasant blur.
Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso provides comic relief as the wayward wife of one of the cards' inventors, and Anthony L. Ramirez gives off enough evil vibes as the man in charge that you suddenly have a villain to detest.
Dean Wray and Jovane Caamaño each turn in sturdy performances as technicians, among other less-savory roles, and together the ensemble heightens the danger. What that danger is we might never be sure of, but at this point it's enough just to be on edge.
Red Chariot runs at Undermain Theatre through October 13. Be sure to check out the display of late artistic director Katherine Owens' artwork in the lobby before or after the show.