On the 1st of December, I had the pleasure (though some may debate this choice of words, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily) of seeing Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat in Atlantic Stage 2, performed by this year’s graduating class at the Atlantic Acting School. This is their first production as their own theater company under the name: Thirty Three Theatre Company, but they’ve been together for some two and a half years and have performed alongside one another in nights of one-acts, in their second-year capstone projects, and in the school productions this semester (Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya).
This production is, to say the least, heavy. Inside the show’s playbill, they’ve written why they chose the piece; they “felt it was a timely, sharply humorous, political and intense text, one that is rich with humanity and desire for critical debate.” Now, while accurate, this statement doesn’t entirely do the show justice. Of a collection of sixteen short plays originally created as a cycle for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they chose six to induce shock and awe in their audience, and to great effect. Each of the plays in the cycle is named after a literary work; the six performed by these soon-to-be graduates are as follows: Intolerance, Fear and Misery, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Mother, and Twilight of the Gods.
The show starts with a short piece of shadow puppetry, which is brought back between each act and establishes a tale of lost innocence, and television clips on an old-school miniature TV set, setting the scene for us and establishing that we’re dealing with a period somewhere near the beginning of the Iraq war, back when the idea that the West could “bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East” still had some kind of meaning outside of bitter irony. Fortunately for us, that’s not the tale these plays tell.
In Intolerance, a Stepford-wife-esque woman whose agonizing, unexplained stomach pains can, without warning, prevent her from doing anything for days on end, speaks directly to the audience about how good, normal, and routine (dare I say stifling) her life is. Naomi Livingstone (also the Artistic Director of the company) somehow manages to seem legitimately excited, if also somewhat manic or terrified, about being in her position. She describes in detail how her mornings go, and eventually segues into a sort of fugue state where she describes a probably imagined past life as an angel whose fall to Hell with Satan was disrupted when she landed in the garden of Eden with a broken wing. Abruptly, the stomach pains which she thought she had been staving off by avoiding caffeine return and fire flashes in Livingstone’s eyes as she recounts the doctor to whom she described her grandfather’s experience at “the camps” – which ones, you might ask while reading this; Livingstone, however, makes it abundantly clear which camps she means.
Ellie Womersley and Luke Ledger collaborate in Fear and Misery as a couple with a young son. True to the title, they make one another both afraid and miserable. With Harry’s (Ledger) constant need to render everything completely safe and secure, his relationship with Olivia (Womersley) seems doomed to collapse on the spot as they argue their way through the piece. Ledger does some interesting physical work, slouching and appearing to leave himself with a bit of a shuffle and a paunch. Somehow it’s reminiscent of Milton from Office Space, which Womersley delivers a punchy performance of one of those people who doesn’t seem to know when to just not say the thing they’re thinking. As they argue about keeping their son safe from literally the entire world, they wake him from a recurring nightmare he has about a soldier with no head.
Part Three of the show is War and Peace, where we see that this nightmare of Alex’s is in fact not a dream at all; rather he is visited periodically by a soldier who, in this production, is missing half his face rather than his head. The interpretation is understandable – Ravenhill gives little to no indication of how to accomplish staging a headless, talking soldier and having a severely damaged face is an excellent compromise when the only real description of the man is coming from a traumatized seven-year-old. Alex, as played by Liv Dunkley, is the kind of child that sends a chill running down one’s spine; somehow both innocent and experienced in the way of the world, Alex takes no prisoners when it comes to getting what he wants. Troy Tripicchio, as the Soldier, has an unhealthy obsession with touching the young boy’s head. He insists on keeping it “their secret”, and it’d be easy for one to think that this is about pedophilia given some of the dialogue. That being said, given the context of the piece (the Soldier is missing his head, he wants a reward for fighting for his country, and Alex is a young child who is easily influenced by the notion of having his gun), it seems to me that there’s more to it than that, which Tripicchio shows us. The Soldier simply wants to be whole again, and the commentary of the piece, if I may put forward a theory, is that the military-industrial complex seeks to influence young minds to recruit them to fight dangerous, useless battles. Both Dunkley and Tripicchio are terrifying in their own way here, from the moment the Soldier enters with his ravaged face and visceral attraction to the child’s “perfect” head to when Alex stands victorious, reveling in violence at the end of their time on stage.
After intermission, they dove headlong into Crime and Punishment, featuring Kieron Anthony and Grace Procopio as another Soldier and a Woman respectively. The Soldier is beginning an interrogation of the Woman for reasons unknown; what we surmise from the Soldier’s gear is that this is taking place in the Middle East, presumably Afghanistan or Iraq. Though never named as such, the continued references to a dictator, his statue being torn down, and “bringing democracy and freedom” leave us with little doubt as to where they are. The action starts somewhat predictably; the Soldier intimidates the otherwise mute Woman into giving answers which please him. Where it goes from there, however, is a dark place that many people would have a hard time understanding if the actor were to miss his mark. While the Woman is a prisoner without cause or due process, and against all protocol (as she makes sure to tell the Soldier), somehow the Soldier is at her mercy. He wants her to love him for what he has done for (or rather to) her country. The Woman’s fear of the Soldier and her rage at the injustice of what is being done to her and her home are both palpable. All she wants is to be allowed to leave and carry on with what is left of her life, but the Soldier has his gun and his knife, and his need for love trumps any rights she may have in his eyes. The idea that he and his country have done incredible damage to her and hers is utterly foreign to him, totally incomprehensible in light of what he has been told. Anthony becomes somehow childlike in his need and disbelief, and without this, the piece just wouldn’t work.
The Mother, the fifth act, is about a mother’s grief for her son. Odette Galbally, as Haley, won’t even let the two soldiers (Derrick Gallegos and Dariane Durham) get a word in edgewise as they try to tell her that her son has died in battle. She screams, curses, provokes, begs, and tries to distract them, all in a vain attempt to not hear what they’ve come to say. Galbally is aware of their reason for showing up from the instant she sees them and does every futile thing she can to make it not be so. The soldiers, while sensitive to her plight and regretting their duty, try to follow through while all hell breaks loose inside Haley’s home. Gallegos ultimately delivers the news with complete solemnity, and Galbally, after having bitten him on the nose, tried to get him and his compatriot to beat her to a pulp, and begged him to just not say the words, looks almost relieved before remarking that it wasn’t as bad as she thought. She gets into an argument with Durham about whether it’s worth it to try to raise children in a world such as theirs, and despite having just lost her son she insists that Durham’s Soldier should have a child. The heartbreak and pain are palpable all through the piece, and Galbally’s awful treatment of the two soldiers only serves to accentuate it, as does their steadfastness in sticking around to deliver the news she needs to hear.
The show ended with Twilight of the Gods, featuring Mel Maldonado and Aina Cuesta as Jane and Susan; Jane is attempting to compile a report for humanitarian aid effort coordination, while Susan just wants some food. Of course “wants some food” doesn’t do the situation justice. As Susan points out, there is no food in their relief zone. She is slowly starving to death, to the point where Jane’s croissant and coffee are to her as the next hit is to an addict. She’s gone from a well-fed, well-educated professor at the university to a bag of skin and bones who can’t think of anything other than getting some kind of nutrition. Meanwhile, Jane is well-meaning but ineffective and self-righteous, affected by propaganda just as Anthony’s Soldier was in Crime and Punishment. When Susan’s starvation and animal instinct to survive overcome what’s left of her better judgment, Jane does her best to save her from herself and ultimately fails. Maldonado and Cuesta put a period at the end of a night of ugly, painful truths, and leave us with a great many things to consider.
The show’s design aspects were, I imagine, an immense challenge to cope with. Each act of the performance has a different setting, with its own potential requirements for staging, lighting, and props. I’m of the opinion that the various designers made a savvy choice in not trying to have elaborate set changes between parts; that would have slowed down a show which was already difficult to watch (though not because of a lack of quality). Instead, they worked within a given framework and prioritized different elements of the set through subtler choices, changing the setting by making the audience want to believe that things were taking place elsewhere. The brain is a funny thing, and they played mine like a fiddle when it came to this.
Regrettably, while the show featured a great deal of talent, we didn’t get a chance to see the rest of the theater company’s acting. However, I offer well-deserved congratulations on all the work that the company put into the other aspects of the run. They’ll each move on to great things on their own and together, I’m certain of it. I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future.
Thirty Three Theatre Company: https://thirtythreetheatreco.org/