The glowing blue waters of a the swimming pool dance entrancingly on stage at the New York Theater Workshop’s production of Lucas Hnath’s new play, Red Speedo. They remind us of the alluring gleam of fame, success, and redemption. Continue reading “‘Red Speedo’ at NYTW is Barely Revealing”
The death of a family member, particularly that of a parent, is an experience full of difficult transitions. Suddenly, a person with whom you have spent your entire life is gone. How do we best honor their lives? Could we have treated them better? Could we have anticipated their illness or unhappiness with more selfless intuition? How do we healthily move on with such a loss at our core? These are the questions that can either break a family or unite them. Happy Few Theatre Company‘s new production the goodbye room, written and directed by Eric Gilde, aims to uncover what unites us in times of grief, guilt, and uncertainty, and how family bonds are so essential to our identities.
In addition to the loss of their mother Carolyn, sisters Bex and Maggie are experiencing major life transitions of their own. Bex (Ellen Adair) is an accountant living in Chicago whose marriage is on the rocks. Maggie (Sarah Killough) lives closer to her Midwestern family home and is anxious about her demanding work schedule and her static love life. Their relationship is at the center of this quiet, genuine story. When Bex first arrives for her mother’s funeral, she finds her sister’s belongings scattered across her old bed. She reacts angrily, already stressed from her flight and from the circumstances bringing her home, but the stuff on her bed is more than just an annoyance. It’s representative of Bex’s absence in the house and Maggie’s added presence, of Maggie’s resentment and Bex’s guilt, and of their strained adult relationship.
Their father Edgar (Michael Selkirk) has a far calmer disposition and lets his true feelings go largely understated. He masks his grief with dry humor and demands little from those around him.This steady demeanor, however, is tested when the sisters’ easygoing childhood friend, Sebastian (Craig Wesley Divino), tries to help the family settle back into normalcy and reveals a crucial detail about Carolyn’s death.
The goodbye room provides a genuine portrayal of a family dynamic. Each character is deeply sympathetic– I could see my own parents and siblings in their complex needs and conflicting responses to grief. While at times a bit heavy-handed (some scenes go a bit too long, and there’s a supernatural suggestion that this essentially family-centered drama could have done without) Gilde’s script provides insight in what is said as much as in what remains unsaid. The play also moves deftly between sadness, confusion, and joy. It allows for the audience to observe the characters in awkward, silent confrontations as well as in boozy, late-night silliness. The company’s superb acting sets a natural, well-paced tone, as does the excellent sound and set design with an attention to detail (oily pizza plates, a frog-faced mug, a crumb-filled rug) that invests us in this family space.
The goodbye room plays at The Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios through March 19. Tickets here.
I first read Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman during one of the most productive and exciting lunch breaks I’ve ever had. I downloaded a PDF on my computer, leaned back in my office swivel chair, and spent the following hour completely engrossed in this teasingly grotesque, entirely unpredictable, and darkly comic play. It was the perfect complement to my 9-to-5, and stimulating enough to keep my mind rampant with reflections and questions through my commute home.
This new production of The Pillowman, produced by The Seeing Place Theater, is running in rep with Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams as part of Seeing Place’s paired thematic exploration of how violent storytellers are dealt with by fearful authorities. The storyteller in this case is Katurian (Artistic Director Brandon Walker), whose violent creations have caught the attention of Detectives Tupolski (John D’Arcangelo) and Ariel (Logan Keeler). The detectives rough him up and make insinuations about Katurian’s socio-political motives—it is clear that the government’s been watching his career closely, as well as the whereabouts of his mentally-disabled brother Michael (Daniel Michael Perez). What you might expect to be a commentary on art and censorship, however, soon becomes something entirely different and far more complex. We learn that a disturbingly large number of Katurian’s stories depict children being brutally mutilated, killed, and even committing suicide, and someone in the town has been copying the murders.
The rest of the play vacillates between these totalitarian interrogation room scenes and Katurian’s storytelling, through which we discover the inspiration for his morbidity—his horrifying childhood—and the unique role his brother plays in his life. The genius of The Pillowman is how its analysis of physical and institutional violence avoids a top-down approach to power. Rather, every character’s power is intricately linked to their victimhood. While the detectives, as representative of the government, may appear to be the main abusers of power, it is actually Katurian and his brother whose actions lead to the most harrowing consequences. Michael’s childlike vulnerability, in particular, is the main means of terror in the story. Because he and his brother were preyed upon as children, they now hold the tools to enact it upon others, even if their actions were unintended. The violence of their childhood is repeated in adulthood in the mere expression of their tales. Is the artist responsible for the actions he inspires in his readers, even as he only tries to grapple with his past? Are we to be trusted with the resolution of our own traumas, or will these traumas repeat themselves in the subconscious of our society?
In the interrogation scenes, Brandon Walker’s Katurian spends a bit too much of his time pinching his nose and sniffling after getting beat up by Detective Ariel for the actors to really allow the dialogue to resonate. There were several points where the play’s absurdly dark humor, a style all McDonagh’s own, failed to come through. More nuanced were the scenes between Katurian and his brother. Perez’s sensitive portrayal of Michael illuminates both his victimhood and his resilience. Their scenes together succeed in giving the play its ultimately flawed heart.
Walker’s intensity was put to better use in Katurian’s storytelling. Here, his grief was steadily mixed with an engaging style. The childlike simplicity of Katurian’s fairytales-gone-awry is strongly contrasted with the savagery of their content (much like Katurian’s own childhood experience) and Waker’s re-telling left me with goosebumps more than once. The storytelling scenes also used computer graphics, musical sound effects, and a three-person ensemble representing Katurian’s family, to enliven the long oral narratives. Some of the scenes would have been just as effective without the visual and sounds effects, though I did think that the presence of Katurian’s family in the background served nicely to remind the audience how the brutality of our cultural myths and legends is not just the stuff fairytales but rather very much alive in our institutions (the state, the family) and our relationships.
A disturbing reflection on violent folktales and the cultures that produce them, The Pillowman is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their theatre with a hearty dose of harrowing surprises, moral dilemmas, and cynical humor.
The Pillowman and Gidion’s Knot, directed by Brandon Walker and Erin Cronican, play in rep at The Clarion Theater through December 20. Visit The Seeing Place Theater for tickets.
While Broadway has been spending the last few weeks anticipating whether their most recent productions will make it or break it under the Tony Awards chopping block, Off-Broadway theatre companies have begun to premiere their exciting new shows for the summer season. Here are two productions that should make you keep your eyes open for the theaters beyond Broadway’s bright lights:
Mobile Shakespeare Unit Presents Macbeth at the Public Theater.
The Public Theater is famous for their free Shakespeare in the Park performances at the Delacorte Theater every summer, but they produce Shakespearean productions year-round. Their Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which continues to spread Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s mission that Shakespeare is for everyone, performs Shakespeare’s plays for the public in nontraditional venues, such as shelters, prisons, and elderly care centers, throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Every Mobile Shakespeare Unit production ends its NYC tour with a run at the Public Theater. This year the Mobile Shakespeare Unit tackled Macbeth, and their production is just as revelatory as the Public’s more lavish presentations of Shakespeare’s work.
If you don’t know the plot summary, I’ll Spark Notes it further for you: Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman, meets three witches who make prophecies of his growing power. Lady Macbeth, his wife, is loving this supernatural development, and encourages Macbeth to murder the King. The body count only rises from here.
This production, directed by Edward Torres, has a practicality befitting both its genesis as a touring show and the world of the play itself. Macbeth’s Scotland was one of thanes and kings, but it was also one of war and bloody takeovers. Wilson Chin’s set design, cleverly composed of small movable pieces, and Amanda Seymour’s utilitarian, grey-toned costume design created an aesthetic that is efficient for the cast to use and the audience to absorb. The fight sequences were effective, their choreography and execution being athletic and brutal. And Rob Campbell’s performance as Macbeth imbued the character with a rugged charisma that allowed me to see the character in a more nuanced way.
With this compact but emotionally rich production of Macbeth, it is clear that the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s work would do Joe Papp proud.
What I Did Last Summer at the Signature Theatre.
Signature Theatre’s revival of What I Did Last Summer takes audiences back to a familiar time and place. Set in the summer of 1945, fourteen-year-old Charlie (Noah Galvin) is summering with his mother and sister on the shores of Lake Erie. When Charlie, sick of avoiding his mother’s chores and wondering about his father serving overseas, sees a flyer for a summer job, he leaps at the chance to make some pocket change and impress his friends. But his employer, Anna Trumbull (Sara Krulwich) is notorious in the town for her part Native American heritage and affair with a well-known doctor. She has been dubbed the “Pig Woman” by locals, and her art teaching and leftist point of view are both strange and exhilarating for Charlie. But the summer must come to an end, and Charlie’s mother (Carolyn McCormick) is determined to restore order and bring her son home.
At first glance, What I Did Last Summer seems like a play that is covering well-trodden territory. There is no shortage of coming-of-age stories about young white boys in America’s nostalgic past, and I wondered what A.R. Gurney’s play could say that hasn’t already been said before. As it turned out, quite a bit. Anna’s mentorship of Charlie is a unique element of the play, as I don’t recall many stories about a young man who was inspired by an older woman in an unromantic way. As Charlie asserts his independence (which has decidedly mixed results), he does so in a way that shows that he is growing up–but is still a boy who must fall back in line with his family’s values.
What I Did Last Summer is also not afraid to state it’s a play, with projections of stage directions, direct addresses by the characters stating who the play is and isn’t about, and a drummer clad in forties garb who provides sound effects, incidental music, and an omniscient presence of his own. John Narun’s projection design is especially moving, as the set directions and dialogue, in the ubiquitous typewriter font, became breathtaking and evocative backdrop images that set the scene both on page and on the stage.
Though What I Did Last Summer takes us to often-visited places, like Charlie and Anna, it forges its own path–and audiences are all the better for it.
We’ve been huge fans of Three Day Hangover‘s boozy adaptations of Shakespearean classics, with a little Chekhov thrown in the mix, ever since The Hamlet Project debuted two years ago. Seriously… we wrote them a love letter. This is a theater company that insures an extraordinarily fun night while modernizing and honoring the play text with great joy and success than your average Shakespeare production. Now they’re closing off the 2014-15 season with Hank V, their first history play.
Adapted by Lori Wolter Hudson and Beth Gardiner, Hank V reworks Henry V using only two characters: Henry–or Hank (Three Day Hangover co-founder David Hudson)– and Falstaff (Christopher Ryan Grant), possibly the most famous comedic character in literary history. Henry V is the final play in a tetralogy that begins with the usurpation of Richard II at the hands of Henry IV, our Henry’s father. Henry V is an unlikely king (he’s a drunk and fun-loving youth in the middle plays) but ends the saga as one of the most heroic and beloved monarchs in English history. If you haven’t read a lick of Shakespeare, never fear! Hank and Falstaff provide the sparknotes version to any information you might need to know.
After a modern verse prologue which depicts Falstaff and Henry’s rowdy, college-bro friendship, we receive word that Henry’s father has passed, and in true meta form, Falstaff and Henry decide to act out Henry V. Falstaff doesn’t actually appear in Henry V; he’s dead by Act II, betrayed by the loss of Henry’s friendship as the young king assumes his royal duty. But here in Hank V, Falstaff serves the purpose of not only playing all the minor characters but also guiding Henry through his radically new role as king and commander.
As per Three Day Hangover’s approach, the play takes on a boozy transformation. The Stumble Inn (the Upper East Side bar serves as our “kingdom for a stage.” Audience participators receive free shots as their death sentence and a map of England and France reflects conquered cities with coordinating solo cups. There’s beer pong pre-show that is excellent preparation for the final St. Crispin’s Day Battle, a massive beer pong free-for-all. There’s also plenty of humor to go around: Falstaff and Hank improvise their way through costumes and props to hilarious effect. The camaraderie (maybe even chemistry in the Katherine scenes?) between Grant and Hudson makes for laugh-a-minute momentum and perfectly embodies the relationship between two old friends.
The thing is, none of this shtick ever feels forced. These productions are so deft at incorporating drinking games, pop culture, and comedy into the original text. They move fluidly from modern lingo into Shakespearean verse with hardly a beat, and then back into a dance party with your favorite 80’s pop song. Three Day Hangover shows just how much of a living, breathing text this classic play can be, and then go about rejuvenating them with their special brand of (alcoholic) elixir.
And if it’s not clear how much of a blast we had at Hank V, we’ve saved our happiest report for last. Including Falstaff into Henry V’s journey as new king is one of the most brilliant adaptive measures ever. Shakespeare’s the man and all, but the history plays can be a bit stodgy at times. The battle preparations and political schemes and war scenes can overrun a play like Henry V, causing it to skimp on the characters and relationships. What Three Day Hangover have effectively done is take one of the greatest literary friendships of all time and extend it into the most trying and difficult time of Henry’s life. It makes his transition into king all the more poignant and so much more human. In Henry V, we are introduced to Henry as an already coronated king and a budding leader. In Hank V, we are still drinking up with the young prince who now has an entire country to rule over and a war to win. Falstaff is the stabilizing force in Hank’s life, and watching them pass through Hank’s trials together, with Falstaff inevitably fading out of them, after all the drinking and debauchery, makes for such wistful and intimate moments.
Three Day Hangover’s Hank V plays at The Stumble Inn through March 1. Tickets Here. Do it.
Sometimes, Broadway producers decide they need to turn a long forgotten movie into a musical. To do so, they usually rope in talented composers and lyricists to cobble together some songs. And to really seal the deal, they hire someone famous (anyone famous, it seems) to entice ticket buyers and make theatergoers wonder: can so-and-so really pull it off?
Honeymoon in Vegas, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre does all of the above, and succeeds so well you almost forget all the times Broadway has gotten it wrong. Based on the 1992 film, Honeymoon in Vegas has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (our very own 21st-century Sondheim) and stars American sweetheart Tony Danza. It’s a complex equation, but one that makes a fantastic musical. Let me count the ways:
1) The storyline is perfect for a madcap musical.
Honeymoon in Vegas begins with a silly premise: that Jack (Rob McClure) can’t marry his long-suffering girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) because his mother (Nancy Opel) cursed him on her death bed. When Betsy confesses that she isn’t sure if she can stay in the relationship without commitment (“Anywhere But Here”), Jack decides that they’ll elope in Vegas. But when high-rolling gambler Tommy (Tony Danza) sees that Betsy looks just like his deceased wife, he’ll do anything to break up the engagement.
Yes, this is the plot of the show. It relies on weird coincidences, family curses, and some good old-fashioned sexism. (No, Tony Danza, “stealing” a woman from another man like a prize farm animal is bad, and you should feel bad.) But those ridiculous elements make up an excellent farce that would have Moliere laughing in his powdered wig. Not only does Honeymoon in Vegas (with a book by Andrew Bergman and direction by Gary Griffin) have impeccable comedic timing, but it also has well developed characters whose actions always have logical reasons. Even better, they aren’t afraid to point out how wacky things are getting. When Betsy spurns Jack to spend a weekend with Tommy, she does it out of anger for Jack’s continuing hesitance to be married. She also points out to Tommy that this is a “crazy arrangement,” aware of the unusual circumstances she’s experiencing.
What makes Honeymoon in Vegas even more complex and enjoyable is its awareness of the audience. In “I Love Betsy,” Jack sings, “I like Broadway (once a year),” a fun aside for theatergoers. Later in the show, while Tommy is singing and dancing in front of a golden curtain, his henchman (Matthew Saldivar) enters and looks up confusingly at the the glitzy set piece. This doesn’t stop him from joining the number and singing in perfect harmony, though.
2) Jason Robert Brown can do commercial oh-so-well.
Known for writing heart-wrenching musicals like Parade, The Last Five Years, and most recently The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown is the widely known as the musical writer who makes you cry.
I had wondered how Jason Robert Brown was going to handle the music and lyrics to Honeymoon in Vegas, a story that doesn’t resemble his usual work. As it turns out, he’s ace at it, from catchy up-tempo numbers like “I Love Betsy” and “Friki-Friki” to sweeter fare like “You Made the Wait Worthwhile.” There’s even a “classic” JRB song in the mix (and of course, it’s my favorite): “Anywhere But Here,” Betsy’s soaring solo where she needs more from her relationship with Jack. Honeymoon in Vegas has one of the best original scores Broadway has seen in a long time, and I look forward to seeing what else Jason Robert Brown has up his composer and lyricist sleeves.
3) Tony Danza and the cast are incredibly charming.
Now an amazingly written and directed musical is all well and good, but you don’t have actors who can sell it, it can still fall flat. Luckily, the cast of Honeymoon in Vegas has talent and charisma for ages. Rob McClure (my new Broadway crush), is adorable as hapless Jack, bringing boundless energy into the role. Brynn O’Malley is definitely enjoying herself as Betsy, and it shows. She tries to be calm throughout the madness, but sometimes she can’t help having fun, downing drinks and trying on wedding dresses in “Betsy’s Getting Married.”
And Tony Danza, the celebrity in our Broadway production equation, is a perfect addition to the show. He can sing. He can act. He also wows the audience in a tap number, and delights them when playing the ukelele. While he does it all, it’s with a knowing smile, the consummate showman throughout his performance.
So if you haven’t seen Honeymoon in Vegas, you totally should. Broadway’s made a gamble that might just pay off.
The Potomac Theatre Project returns to Atlantic Stage 2 this summer with two main-stage productions. I was immediately interested in Gertrude—The Cry, a play examining the passions of a woman mostly known for being the mother of a famously temperamental Danish prince.
This is not a regular “retelling” of a well-known story–nor should it be, under playwright Howard Barker’s pen. His work, a favorite of PTP (last year they tackled The Castle), is known as “theatre of catastrophe,” because Barker makes “no attempt to satisfy any demand for clarity or the deceptive simplicity of a single message.” Though Barker’s dialogue can be difficult to find meaning, it doesn’t fail to shock and titillate with its combination of heightened language and obscene subject matter.
Barker’s Gertrude (a stunning Pamela J. Gray) is not a misunderstood figure who has been wronged. She is just as culpable of her husband’s murder as Claudius, if not more so, taking on a Lady Macbeth level of glee as she plots with Claudius to kill the king—and in a shocking turn, have sex over the king as he is in his final death throes.
Later in the play, Hamlet (David Barlow) laments that “it’s so hard to shock them.” At first, Hamlet’s assertion rings false, as Gertrude’s pursuit of sex and betrayal bring about a host of lewd acts and words. But the second half of Gertrude—The Cry becomes a forgone bloody Shakespearean conclusion (It’s still based on Hamlet, after all). Its shock value decreases not because it’s a tragedy, but because the characters’ motivations are never fully defined.
Do not let that stop you from seeing this play, though. Fantastic performances abound, from Alex Draper’s all-knowing servant to Pamela J. Gray’s poised and devastatingly sensual Gertrude. My favorite had to be David Barlow’s Hamlet. His performance allowed me to finally see why a grown man (“student” though he may be) is a man-child overly obsessed with his mother’s sex life. Major props also go to Barker evening the gender quota, adding Isola (Kathryn Kates), Claudius’ mother, and Ragusa (Meghan Leathers), a much more capable foil to Ophelia (nonexistent in this play). And Barker’s language is a perverse delight to hear.
Gertrude—The Cry is not your mother’s Hamlet, nor would you want it to be. It is a fascinating and frustrating portrait of a woman who usually stands silent in another fascinating and frustrating play.
Idina’s at If/Then. Audra’s doing Billie Holliday. Kelli’s in Madison County. And Sutton’s leading Violet. This year has been full of Broadway’s starriest leading ladies taking to the stage once more and reminding us all of why we love them. I never know what to expect from Sutton Foster’s performances (she’s so amazingly versatile) but I, like most theatergoers, am willing to blindly follow her into whatever role she chooses. As Violet, a young woman whose face was disfigured in childhood by a loose ax blade, Foster gives a mature performance that shines despite its subtle severity. Foster delivers her lines with a quick sharpness that reveal the interior mind of a young woman who has had to reconcile herself to a lifetime of loneliness and unfairness. Yet, she’s never unnecessarily bitter or angry. Perhaps that is because Violet still sees a glimmer of hope in her future. She leaves her small hometown to seek out a televangelist to heal her. Not only does she want him to get rid of her facial scar, she’d also like to get some perks in the process– Grace Kelly’s nose and Ava Gardner’s eyebrows, for example.
It was a little hard to believe that a woman with Violet’s attitude and experiences would fall for Hollywood beauty standards or for the razzle dazzle of a tv preacher, but her susceptibility reminds us of two things:
1) Violet is from a southern small town in 1960’s America. Add to that, she’s Catholic. It’s no small wonder she can have a one-night stand without free-falling into shame. Her scar lets her get away with some proto-feminist actions (she plays poker with the guys and doesn’t need to exhibit traditional domestic femininity because she isn’t exactly an object of desire around town), and yet, Violet is still a woman of her times. For example, she unwittingly insults black soldier and fellow traveler Flick (Joshua Henry) when comparing the scar on her face to the color of his skin.
2) Violet might have learned to live with her scar, but that doesn’t mean she has learned to love herself. What she is a well-built defense against all the inappropriate questions, the gasps, the stares, the teasing, etc. But a good defense mechanism does not equal confidence. It does not equal self-love. It does not equal acceptance.
One of the (few) things I liked about this musical is that Violet is not perfect. She’s not this remarkable wise-beyond-her-years woman who sees through the bullshit of the beauty industry. On the other side of the spectrum, she’s not this super-jaded misanthrope who only see the world’s injustices. She is a real, complex person, and what real person in this world can’t do without a little more self-love?
Here’s the thing though– Violet’s journey is NOT a journey to self-love. It is NOT a journey to acceptance.
Let me take you through the
pretty lame and predictable ending. Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers. Violet finds Mr. Preacher Man and realizes that he’s basically Raul Esparza from Leap of Faith, except more self-deluded and more indifferent. I’m sorry if my reference to that ridiculous show made you cringe. Anyways, Violet sort-of hallucinates into thinking that God cures her face and meets up with one-night-stand soldier (Colin Donnell) to show him her new face. He tells her the truth, and Violet breaks down in despair. Then, Flick arrives and professes his love to Violet. Violet…loves that he loves her? Violet asks him what he sees when he looks at her and Flick…kisses her to avoid responding? Crick. Crack. And Stella gets her groove back.
Okay so that was a very cheeky summary, but it was pretty much my experience of it. The point is Violet’s happiness remains completely dependent on how other people validate her. Her newfound hope lies solely in her new relationship with Flick. Nowhere does this ending show Violet taking steps to self-love. Nowhere does Violet address how she will continue to see herself. While it’s nice that Flick and Violet fulfill each others’ needs, Violet’s happiness is entirely dependent on it. And just like those magazine photos of Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth, Violet’s beauty is only validated by how other people see her. Putting forth a romantic relationship as the answer/culmination of Violet’s journey provides only a superficial resolution to Violet’s self-image.
On a side note though, I do want to express how much I appreciated another character’s emotional journey in dealing with the same traumatic experience. A better example of what the struggle to self-acceptance might look like is Violet’s father (Alexander Gemignani) , who appears in flashbacks. When a young Violet (Emerson Steele) confronts him with accusations that her disfigurement is all his fault, that he could have done more to help her, Father responds with an extraordinarily vulnerable and insightful message that I immediately identified with: For everyday of her childhood, he did what he could do. Instead of wallowing in guilt and resentment, placing hope in unrealistic expectations, and reliving the experience everyday just with one look at her face, he took steps. Small steps, but steps nonetheless. He fed her. He clothed her. He taught her to be independent and confident. He greeted her with a smile. We immediately see that Violet is not the only one who must deal with the daily resonances of her disfigurement. Her father has had his share of suffering too. And as anyone who feels like the world is crumbling around them will know, sometimes just getting out of bed is accomplishment enough.
The Clearing, now running until February 9th at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, is a new play that deals with secrets, relationships, and the complex ways we grieve. Its occasional narrator is Peter (Gene Gallerano), a young photographer who has fallen in love with Les Ellis (Brian McManamon). The snag in their romance is Les’ close but troubled relationship with his brother Chris (Brian P. Murphy). Chris has never quite grown up after the terrible event that happened to him and Les when they were children. Both brothers have kept the tragedy a secret and continue to visit the forest clearing where it took place. But Peter’s insertion into the clearing and their lives pushes the Ellis family to confront their demons—with devastating consequences.
The production, directed by Josh Hecht, is a visual delight. Daniel Zimmerman’s set design has brought the magic of the outdoors to a Midtown theatre, with a tree replete with fall foliage and a dirt lined hill dominating one side of the stage. Gertjan Houben’s gentle lighting illuminates the action without overpowering it, and Lorin Latarro’s choreography adds intriguing movements to the transitions between scenes. The cast all inhabit their characters with wry humor and surety. Allison Daugherty, in particular, plays Les and Chris’ mother with a combination of humility, charm, and quiet suffering that makes her equally captivating and heartbreaking.
The Clearing is a family drama centered on the mystery of Les and Chris’ past. While it was fun trying to guess their Big Secret (my guesses about the same as Peter’s), there were other mysteries I could not unravel. How did Les and Peter meet? Where does the Ellis family live? Why is Chris so disconnected from his mother and more disturbed about the past than Les? In an interview, playwright Jake Jeppson says that because people—and therefore, characters—act illogically, he wants to “reduce the sometimes gripping need we feel to explain actions and events on stage.” Though an excess of explanation can bog down a show (looking at you, first acts of Elizabethan drama), the lack of specificity in The Clearing makes it difficult to relate to its characters. The resulting climax is more of an intellectual shock than an emotional one.
Still, the play has put me off from hiking anytime soon.