Monday, October 21, 2019

Margin Notes: Strangers in the Night

Patricia Lynn as Molly in Screwed.
Photo by Al Foote III.
Strangers in the Night

Seen on: Friday, 10/18/19.
My grade: A-/C

Plot and Background
Hunger & Thirst Theatre presents two one-acts, Screwed by Patricia Lynn and Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don't-Knower by Emily Kitchens, with connective tissue written by Philip Estrera. Screwed is an updated version of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, as governess Molly is interviewed in the aftermath of a tragedy in the house where she works. Bottling Dreams is set in the near-future as an unnamed man attempts to gather supplies for his invalid wife, but gets waylaid by the draw of a stranger who finds him bottling tears. Frank's monologues serve as a frame for the evening, greeting us, transitioning us between plays, and closing out the evening.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen and reviewed several Hunger & Thirst productions in the past.


Play: The ideal thing here would be to review the show as a cohesive evening of theater, but I'm struggling to be able to do that. What's especially odd is that Estrera's interstitial monologues, which ought to help the evening cohere, in fact underline how utterly disparate the two centerpieces are in form and content. Each might have been better served if presented individually. So, separately:

Lynn's Screwed is tight and tense, simultaneously gentle and frightening, luring the audience bit by bit into the gothic mystery of the house and the family, and how it's all been slowly tormenting Molly until the crisis point. The characters hold onto their secrets well, dancing between the allure of rescue and the abyss of annihilation. It's an excellent example of a good one-act, with no wasted time but still providing a full emotional journey.

Kitchens's Bottling is unfortunately mostly bewildering to me as a piece of theater. The language of it continually frustrates me, reminding me of the sort of playwriting we did in school, reaching for an abstract poetry without first grounding anything in story or character. Even putting language aside, the rules of the world and the passage of time are unclear, and the characters exist in the sort of maddening reality where they seem to matter only in their relationship to the Man at the center (the Stranger, when finally asked who he is, replies that he is the Stranger, as if he did not exist before the moment he entered orbit round the Man).

Before, between, and following Screwed and Bottling are Frank's musings, referring to humanity as marbles with the arrogance of a deity, but also finally confessing that he himself is "just a transition. What I mean to say is, I'm not that interesting." This confession is unfortunately all too true until his final quiet moment when, artifice removed, he sits and tells us a story of earlier that day, when he ordered a slice of chocolate cake. It's his only moment of real connection, completely separate from any relation to the two plays of the evening.

Cast: Patricia Lynn is the standout here, in her play Screwed. Over the several H&T shows I've seen her in, she continually demonstrates an agility at conveying the sense of a woman just on the brink of shattering to glass, but determinedly keeping herself together by will alone, a tactic which serves her well here as the traumatized but fierce Molly. There's something so compelling in the set of her shoulders and the haunted look in her eye, that makes it impossible to look away. In Bottling, Natalie Hegg as the Other Half has a rich purring voice and a lovely honest conviction, but she's hampered by having the more Dada-esque dialog. As for the men in both plays, Patrick T. Horn, Brandon J. Vukovic, Dillon Heape, and Philip Esterera never quite seem comfortably in the skin of their characters, and one keeps feeling the artifice of the fact that here we are watching them in a play. Speaking of artifice, Jordan Kaplan as Frank at first seems to suffer from this same fate, but when he finally sits at the end to tell us his story, all that slips away and the deity is suddenly simply human, lonely and sweet. If we could bottle that sense, infuse the whole evening with it, we might be in better stead.

Design: No scenic or costume designer is credited, so we'll leave that alone. I'm pleased to see the growing trend of productions hiring Intimacy Directors, and Adin Walker's presence is felt in the poetry of the sexual moments of Bottling (though with only one actor undressing for these moments, it might have made sense to lean even further into the metaphor of the movement). Wesley Cornwell's lighting is evocative without being intrusive, occasionally drawing our attention the beautifully vaulted ceiling over our head before shutting us in total darkness. Ben Charles's video design is unfortunately on the same bewildering frequency as the broadcast voiceovers (sound design Randall Benichak) that cover scene transitions in Bottling, a mixtures of text over faces, of famous comic sequences from Chaplin or Lucille Ball, while a woman's disembodied voice falters her way into sentences, telling us to "Follow the function and the yellow bring road."


Running: Now playing at West End Theatre (Hunger & Thirst Theatre) - Opening: October 11, 2019. Closing: October 26, 2019.
Category: two one-act plays with interludes
Length: 1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission.

Creative Team

Playwrights: Patricia Lynn (Screwed), Emily Kitchens (Bottling Dreams of the Tearful Don't-Knower), Philip Estrera (Frank interludes).
Directors: Caitlin Davies (Screwed), Paul Kite (Bottling).
Designers:  Adin Walker (Intimacy Director), Wesley Cornwell (Lighting), Randall Benichak (Sound), Ben Charles (Video), Patrick T. Horn (Technical Advisor), Heather Olmstead (Production Stage Manager), Chris Colbourn (Assistant Stage Manager).
Cast: Philip Estrera, Dillon Heape, Natalie Hegg, Patrick T. Horn, Jordan Kaplan, Patricia Lynn, Brandon J. Vukovic.

Philip Estrera and Dillon Heape as Stranger and Man in Bottling Dreams of
the Tearful Don't-Knower
. Photo by Al Foote III.

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