Flee This Place
@ Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School
Through Oct. 18
Johannah Maynard seems to have spent her fair share of time around libraries. Her new play, Flee This Place, asks us to experience the hyperawareness to sound that a librarian might have, attuned to its absence and also to the potential drama when the silence is broken. Maynard also knows the old desire that almost every reader has known: to intervene: To rescue a character we care about before he or she commits an act that never can be undone.
As playwright and director, Maynard exercises both interests in this first production by The Distillery, a new company she formed with Sylvia Mallory, in a show that runs through this Sunday at Burning Coal's Meymandi Theatre.
In Flee This Place, the principal characters in the Greek tragedies Medea and Antigone testify and interrogate one another in a ceremonial space, before an enigmatic man, the Chorus, interviews each in an attempt to intervene. This inaugural production emphasizes not only the physicality of its actors but also the psychological theater, up close, communicated through striking visuals in stage composition, Deb Bigsby's notable costumes and Rebecca Buck's unorthodox set design.
Instead of Meymandi's usual seating banks, the audience finds chairs surrounding a tableau set in sand at the center of the room. A series of brick and cinderblock cairns are evenly spaced around this circle, while characters sit or crouch along an arc of steps leading up to a circular plinth set at the center.
The intake of breath that cues the start of this ritual of possible redress is but the first in a series of wordless, almost soundless cries, whispers and exultations that are communicated, along with the very physical labor of grief, through a vivid, expanded human soundscape. Maynard's script gives a septet of characters solo space to speak their lack of peace in monologues marked by an enviable poetic economy, establishing their individual hells before interactions with other characters reinforce them.
Strong acting sells the world created here. We've never believed Fred Corlett more on stage than in his work here as Creon. When the name of Jason, Medea's betrayer, still tastes sweet on her lips, that fact makes Benji Taylor Jones' character writhe all the more between conflicting primary emotions. Jack Benton gives Jason the sangfroid of a psychopathic narcissist as he explores an unseemly sexuality with the affecting Allison Powell as a disturbingly young Glauce. Meanwhile, Angela Santucci's Antigone jams her hands against her ears as Hilary Edwards' Ismene recalls the happiness of their childhood.
In their midst, Andy Hayworth's understated Chorus first listens and then gently interrogates each of the principals. A work that probably goes too emo too early gets needed comic relief when he breaks up the Sturm und Drang once by yelling, "Didn't any of you ever have a GOOD day?" In the scene that follows, his character literally orchestrates a moment of respite, where all of the principals are without pain.
If Maynard risks much by transposing grief upon grief, she also takes her chances by interposing recordings by X, Paul Simon and Elliott Smith among the tortured revelations here. Though the choreography imposed on the song "Homeless" seems contrived, this play's true center is a number that employs Antony and the Johnsons' "Fistful of Love" (in the second area show to do so recently).
It's easy to say that Maynard's ending indulges in pop psychology. But by then, the ritual in Flee This Place has shown at least one character an exit from a dilemma of long standing, in an evening of experimental, sometimes harrowing but rewarding theater.