By Guy Webster
It unsurprising to note that Jen Silverman wrote her 2013 play, Still while a student at Yale Drama School. The play, which follows a forty-one-year-old Entomologist as she reckons with the still birth of her child, falls prey to many of the pitfalls common to work from a young playwright. Unfortunately, Heartstring Theatre’s production at fortyfivedownstairs finds itself similarly ensnared by such pitfalls.
Lauren Morelli once described Silverman’s work as ‘razor-sharp absurdism alongside a deep reverence for humanity’. Still is a clear, albeit rough, example of this combination – a play dense with seemingly disparate moments of finely tuned wit and deeply moving drama. It is a play that moves quickly, often without signal, from the wail of a grieving mother to a lamentation on the banality of casseroles, from an unjust firing to the whipping of a pumpkin. It works in a language of juxtaposition that can be difficult to manage for all its tonal flips and quick emotional pivots.
It is clear from the outset of Heartstring Theatre’s production that director Sarah Vickery is interested in emphasising the toothy juxtapositions that characterise Silverman’s writing. The production begins well-enough. We walk into the open-plan space of fortyfivedownstairs to an arresting tableau: all four actors are positioned at four corners of a square of skin-coloured fabric. They are still – a motif, dare I say it – and dimly lit. The carpet is creased, almost wrinkly. Soon enough Constantinople (Joseph Lai) rises from a plastic casement, covered in dripping ooze. He is the child, he tells us with a smile, that ‘was dead when I came out’. The scene is unsettling, yet strangely light-hearted, even comical. And so, the juxtapositions begin.
From here, we follow Constantinople as he searches for his mother, Morgan (Joanne Booth), learning new words and phrases like a baby Frankenstein all-the-while. During his journey he meets a young dominatrix considering an abortion, Dolores (Sara Bolch), and the mid-wife who delivered him, Elena (Elisa Armstrong) – all of whom are confined to this small square of skin-coloured carpet. At times, the character’s proximity to one another makes for some effective visuals. Standing centre-stage beneath a single spotlight, Lai’s Constantinople appears as both a literal and metaphorical centre to those who orbit him, to those who have been impacted by his death. Here, I wondered whether the space and its limiting parameters were intended as a womb-like structure, housing these characters and, in doing so, illustrating the ways in which they had been inevitably connected by the trauma of Constantinople’s death.
When Elena and Morgan were blocked apart from each other for a particularly emotional conversation, I clung to this metaphor. Surely their distance, and the ways in which it served to dull the emotional stakes of the scene, could be seen as intriguingly undercut by this womb-like set that brought them together. ‘I don’t believe in metaphor’, Elena tells Morgan at one point. Likewise, the limitations of this set eventually overpowered any belief I had in its figurative powers. If the actors weren’t being tripped by its budding creases or finding their feet stuck to the goo which had been slowly dripping onto it, they were struggling to establish parameters to the worlds which their characters inhabited within it.
While Silverman’s writing is decidedly absurd, it does not shed naturalism altogether but rather keeps it close to heighten moments when it chooses to subvert it. With such an immediately surreal set, this production made subversion near-impossible. There are no clear boundaries to the worlds within which these characters are moving, besides that of outside the confines of the square and inside it. The space where Dolores writes a letter for a dead child in her apartment is also her BDSM dungeon, then Elena’s basement, the site of an emotional reunion between mother and child, and a session of self-flagellation. This chaos is intriguing when the piece favours the absurd, especially at moments of physical theatre from Lai and Booth, but distracting at moments of high emotional drama that are delivered sincerely, even naturalistically. When Dolores crumbles into Elena’s arms, a moment with strong affective potential is compromised by its position on what is ostensibly just another random spot on the fabric, surrounded by a discarded pumpkin, a casserole tin and whip, as well as two other actors moving in slow-motion on the outskirts. I do not mean to simply denigrate these choices. However, in a play that suffers for having not committed itself to one character, any choice that distracts focus, or simply crowds the piece, is untenable. A more consistent sound or lighting design might have helped ground, or focus, these elements more. As it stands, an overreliance on side-lighting and an incredibly sparse sound design offer little for the audience to grasp onto amidst the already chaotic script and set.
Yet these are highly capable performers worth commending. Lai is especially affecting as Constantinople, drawing expertly on his experience in physical theatre to straddle the lines of absurdism and humanity that his presence in the piece inevitably saddles him with. Likewise, Booth clung powerfully to Morgan, a role that is unjustly underwritten.
Silverman’s writing contains a dynamism that, for all its density, delivers some powerfully simple punches. Lines like, ‘You look like words I haven’t learned yet’, or ‘I miss you still’, hint at a clarity of thought that this production certainly toys with, if fails to commit to. It is unsurprising that both these lines were delivered simply, beneath a white spotlight centre stage. In their staging, they exemplify moments of harmony that are peppered throughout out this production; moments when Silverman’s writing and Vickery’s ambitious direction come together to tap into a kind of affective potential that will leave you breathless. For these moments alone, this production is more than worth it.
Still is playing at fortyfivedownstairs from 30th June to 11th July.
Images: Angel Leggas