Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Providence Gap at Triad Stage

June 13, 2010. I saw Triad Stage’s production of Providence Gap, the newest collaboration between TS Artistic Director Preston Lane and Laurelyn Dossett. Let me begin by saying please go see this show, if you are in the area. In the places where the show succeeds it succeeds wildly, and in the place where it perhaps falls short it is not for want of effort or ambition. I was a little surprised, honestly, by the show’s will to be weird – from its minimal set to its general darkness to its semi-linear story to its Stygian framing device. And whether the ending works for you (there is an element of Wizard of Oz-style fuck-you-ery to it) or not, I encourage this sort of beautiful, genre-stretching, oddball production to succeed in the place of the usual cornfried hash that seems to monopolize the stage here in the South.

The set is minimal, evocative, and beautiful. Flat, wide steps come down from a black portal upstage center. Blue, watery structures rest high on the walls – they are the Blue Ridge Mountains, and their crepe-paper-like skins challenge you to find shapes and meaning among their shadows. I watched an audience member walk in and say, “Oh – how stark and simple! Like nothing!” (True.) Back-country music and more than a little smoke fill the playing space. I heard an usher comment, “Little smoky in here … we’re in the Smoky Mountains,” which I thought was charming until I heard the poor woman say the exact same sentence four more times to four more patrons. Nonetheless, it got a laugh each time …

The story itself is both simple and complex: a young man with a mysterious birth discovers his parents are not his real parents, and he goes on a quest to find his real home. There are elements of many mythologies to this play: shades of Oedipus (with a clever reversal), the pre-Disney Cinderella tale and its magic tree, an acknowledged debt to Shakespeare’s Pericles (not as overt as I was expecting, given the program notes), and myriad others. And the play does a grand job establishing its own mythology: after the dark and slightly slow introduction, we are well-versed in whose story we are watching, what kind of story it is, and what the rules of combat will be. We understand that certain characters, when they speak, will speak aphoristically and in Brecthian, epic language. (Note how many times characters refer to “The 20th Century.”)

The play truly begins, however, when we meet Chance and Burlene (TJ Austyn and Ginny Myers Lee), who have until this moment believed themselves to be brother and sister. Both performers are terrific in this show. I have seen them both in productions beforehand (I’ve even seen TJ Austyn chase after another mystic tree in The Clean House) and admired their work, but they really shine here. This is a tribute partially to their talent, and partially to the fact that these two characters have the clearest and strongest goals – he to possess a real home, and her to possess him. Both of their journeys bring them little but heartache, despair, and worse, but it is a bittersweet joy to watch them suffer because both actors are just so present the entire time. Also excellent is Leah Turley in the role of Fortune, Chance’s true love.

The play was least successful to me, though that is not to say unsuccessful, in two areas – the framing mechanism and the music. Let me be very clear: the music is lovely. Lovely, lovely, and I will buy the CD. But this is not a musical in the strict sense, it is a play-with-music, and I felt the music added little more than tone and atmosphere to the production. And yet so much stage time was given to this music that the momentum of the play suffered. This was perhaps intentional, in the way that I assume the hazy darkness of the lighting design was intentional – it is easy to intellectually connect the hazy darkness and ethereal, minimal back-country music to the dreamscapes of this play, but it ultimately didn’t click for me. Perhaps the fault is mine. And the interwoven narrator/character (played very energetically by Michael Abbott, Jr.) almost felt like a character from a completely different, much less subdued play. I have been debating since leaving the theatre whether this story-to-audience liaison was required, or if others even found him useful. (No slur on the excellent actor, of course.)

But these are small points. I want every play to be as ambitious, as strange, and as sui generis as Providence Gap. And as to the ending – well, I cried. And I turned to see the woman seated diagonally behind me staring at me, as if thatwere more important than the revelation happening on stage. (Dear lady, whoever you are: it wasn’t.)

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