By ANTHONY CHASE
After being murdered one last time at the final matinee of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” at Buffalo State last Saturday, I headed across town to catch Nina Raine’s “Tribes” at Road Less Traveled Theatre, and then kept pace the next day by seeing Nick Payne’s “Constellations” at Second Generation Theatre and Zora Howard’s “Stew” at Ujima. Then I picked up the new week with the New Phoenix / Red Thread production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” and I’m still chugging along. (Yes, Torn Space, O'Connell & Company, and Irish Classical, I KNOW you’re opening this week!)
So while I was out of commission as an audience member for several weeks, I’m making a swift and furious return to the theater, and here are some quick takes on what I’ve seen.
Constellations follows the many possible variations on the lives of a young English couple, named Marianne and Roland, as they go through courtship, marriage, and the prospect of death.
The evening involves a fast succession of variations on possible moments in the relationship. In one version the first meeting goes badly; in another, it’s a classic “meet cute”; in another it is awkward for Marianne, in another for Roland.
Marianne, who is a physicist explains, “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” Playwright Nick Payne proceeds to show how that might play out.
The quick shifts and frequent repetitions require an acting tour de force, and Kristen Bentley and Chris Avery prove to be up to the task, as they propel themselves through every variation with lightning speed and astonishing precision.
In the play’s final sequence, Marianne is terminally ill and Roland expresses his desire for more time with her. In one scenario, she responds that they will go home so they can enjoy her final days together as best they can. In another, she comforts him with the reality that he will always have all the time there was, and he was never going to have more than that. Time is meaningless.
That thought resonated with me. As I reach a moment in my life when I can casually begin a memory with the phrase, “Fifty years ago…,” time becomes, somehow, meaningless. In fact, entirely defying the expectations of my youth, as I approach old age, my younger days do not seem long ago. My entire life seems recent. In many ways, 1962 is as vivid in my mind as 2020, and the choices I made or did not make seem unimportant, even when their implications, repercussions, or consequences profoundly determined the direction of my life. My life is my life.
Oddly, “Constellations” reminded me of “Macbeth,” wherein a man is given tantalizing but partial insight into his future and tries to manipulate his fate through a sequence of horrible choices. Here again, mere humans seek to take on the eternal issues, only to find that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will creep in a petty pace, always ending, for each of us, in the exact same way.
Director Michael Wachowiak has given this two-hander unerring pace, tone, and visual variety in a space designed by Chris Cavanagh. It is an impressive and thought-provoking evening at the theater.
The “Tribes” buzz had certainly reached me, previous to seeing the show this past weekend. It did not disappoint.
Here we meet a family of intellectually and artistically gifted people who turn out to be emotional imbeciles. The family both ignores and orbits around its one deaf member, “Billy,” played with winning insouciance that smolders into defiant passion, by newcomer Dave Wantuck. Billy has never learned American Sign Language, a deliberate choice on the part of parents who did not want him to be defined by his deafness.
The “children” of this family are all adults, but the hearing son, Daniel, and daughter, Ruth, are having trouble starting their careers, one in academia, the other in the performing arts. They have returned to live home. Billy does not seem to be expected to leave, ever.
This unhappy and untenable balance is disrupted when Billy meets Sylvia, a young woman who is losing her hearing. He falls in love with her.
In artful flourishes, the playwright has made his brother, Daniel, a scholar of semiotics, or the study of meaning and signs. Ruth aspires to a career in opera. The frustrations of Daniel and Ruth are stunningly countered by Billy’s stupefying ability to read lips, and, Sheila’s musical talent. In a remarkable moment, she riffs through Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” effortlessly.
All of the performances are laudable. I would like, in particular, to contrast the interpretation of Sylvia, which differs significantly from the performance of the role I saw in Chicago in 2016. In this production, Sylvia seems to be more of an inspiration than an influence on Billy. When I first saw the play, she seemed to be manipulating his choices. Here, in an exquisitely nuanced performance by Melinda Capeles, Sylvia is repeatedly taken by surprise as Billy, who she initially took to be a hearing person (surprise number one), engages in the deaf world for the first time. This is especially important when she must interpret a stunning ultimatum that Billy directs at his family. Capeles expertly handles comic moments of knowing asides in sign, to which the hearing family is oblivious, without ever asking for a laugh. She is remarkable.
Johnny Barden gives a focused and affecting performance as Daniel, the brother. Anna Krempholtz is excellent as Ruth the sister. David Marciniak departs brilliantly from his typically joyful characters as cantankerous and inflexible Christopher, the father. Margaret Massman is similarly fine as Beth, the mother.
The trajectory of the play uses deafness both literally and as a metaphor for the attention and seriousness which people often do not extend to others, even to those they love. So much of life, this play seems to be saying, it just a matter of needing to be heard.
At every turn, the production is supported by set by Lynne Koscielniak, which includes projected translations of American Sign Language, and excellent sound design by Katie Menke.
Zora Howard’s “Stew” is both a delight and a tale of caution. There is always drama and the threat of tragedy beneath the surface in this tale, which begins like a cheerful family comedy. Here we meet four African American women, representing three generations of a family. Mama, played by Karen Saxon, is up early to prepare a meal for 50 members of her church.
Mama is distracted by a loud explosion outside the home. A shot? A backfiring car? Who knows?
The day is young, but she has already fixed and burned a stew, and must start over. Things like this often happen to Mama. When one of her daughters observes that Mama is always late for everything, she fires back that she is always “held up” by others. That seems to be true.
The surface situation, which borders on cliché, isn’t even half of the full picture.
Each of Mama’s daughters and her granddaughter are holding information unknown to the others. They are also, unwittingly, reliving the experiences of Mama’s life. The men of the family are expected, but don’t arrive. Everyone is dutifully acting out a part.
This reality is made literal when granddaughter reveals that she is preparing an audition for a production of “Richard III.” Mama offers to coach the girl, and reveals that she knows the lament of Queen Elizabeth, who has lost a son, perhaps too well.
Gradually, all is revealed in this play, and the loops of repetition become hauntingly overt.
The cast assay the material with sensitivity and believability. Karen Saxon as Mama. Millie-Rae Rodriguez-Spencer as Lil’Mama. Ember Tate as Nelly. Jacquie Cherry as Lillian.
Curtis Lovell guides this story with a steady and perceptive hand in her directorial debut.
The New Phoenix Theatre and Red Thread Theatre are calling on first class talent with their production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play, “The Children” starring Eileen Dugan, Josephine Hogan, and Peter Palmisano.
Inspired by the 2011 incident at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, where an earthquake caused a tsunami, that flooded the plant and the emergency generators that were located – brace yourself – in the basement of the seaside plant. The result was a meltdown, chemical explosions, and radioactive material leaked into the atmosphere and ocean.
Kirkwood transfers this incident to the coast of England, and takes us to a small cottage where two physicists, Hazel and Robin, a married couple and former employees of the plant, have moved to be a little further from the “exclusion zone.” As the play begins, Rose, a friend and fellow physicist is paying an unexpected visit. Rose has been living in America, and has not been back for 38 years. Or has she? She seems to know her way around the supposedly unfamiliar cottage and the exchanges between Hazel and Rose often seem imbued with underlying meaning.
The acting is superior. We scrutinize every look and gesture for the secrets of this plot. Robert Waterhouse provides firm and unobtrusive direction. The realistic set is by Chris Wilson. Light is by Chris Cavanagh. Tom Makar has provided the sound design.
While I was fully expecting an anti-nuclear movement play, Kirkwood never really addresses this issue at all. In fact, her characters seem entirely accepting of the inevitability of nuclear power. Hazel briefly opines that wind turbines would disturb the natural beauty of the shoreline, and that wave power might be the way to go, but there is no polemic in a play. Instead, Kirkwood uses a human created disaster to force the issue of mortality that motivates Rose’s unannounced visit. We get hints that a sexual bond with Robin has brought Rose back to England, but this is far from her agenda.
Without giving anything away, the play takes the old dilemma of what to do about the old folks and turns it on its head. Instead, these characters must decide what to do about “the children.”