Downstate

Downstate by Bruce Norris

National Theatre (a co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre Company) / directed by Pam MacKinnon

Seen on April 16, 2019

Score: 4.5 / 5

Welcome to one of the last places you’d ever want to visit: Downstate takes place over the course of a single day in a group home shared by four men convicted of sex crimes against minors. When one of their victims—now an adult—shows up with his wife for a long-awaited confrontation, the play’s fuse gets lit, its light and heat gradually enfolding all these men in a wave of belated reckoning. Bruce Norris takes the knife-edge issues of sexual abuse and trauma, and runs them through a masterfully balanced mix of levity and gravity that is nothing short of life-like.

Pam MacKinnon’s assuredly even-handed direction and Todd Rosenthal’s painstakingly realist set design imbue the play with the aura of a family drama—an effect also buttressed by the convicted characters’ quasi-familial bickering and teasing, especially in the first act. The fantastic cast are especially remarkable in how they reveal the messy humanity of each of their characters, whether it be full of aspirations, regrets, or pain—or some combination thereof. Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman bring a particularly flavourful depth to their depictions of offenders, while Tim Hopper’s deeply traumatised Andy and Cecilia Noble’s sassily authoritative Ivy are well-tuned renderings.

Neither the topics with which Downstate deals nor the ways in which it does so are easy to unpack. At the centre of Norris’ play are four morally reprehensible criminals, whose outlooks on life and on their deeds we are not asked to forgive or redeem, but to understand. From its very start, the play does away with the idea of siding with and against certain characters. Rather, the more we hear from them, the harder it becomes to pass judgment. Note that this is not the same as coming to like them or growing more sympathetic: what happens is that we absorb more and more of who they are, what they feel, and what they want in the wake of—and in their awareness of—their crimes, and the psychological and social picture that emerges becomes ever more resistant to classification. Both charm and darkness reside in each of their psyches, and the play’s chief concern seems to be to foreground this undeniable mixture, which we, individually and as a society, may not really know what to do with or how to feel about. As such, the play itself is an invitation to an exercise in sustained listening—to the victim, to the offenders, and to the system (partially embodied by the police officer Ivy).

There are times in Downstate when you can’t help but laugh at things that you know are extremely uncouth to hear from anyone, let alone from sex offenders. There are other times when the painful tension among the characters, particularly between the victim Andy and his former assaulter, shoves a lump in your throat and you feel you have to take a deep breath. It is this cringe- and smile-inducing honesty (and, equally important, self-deceptiveness) of Norris’ characters that drives the whole work forward in a slow but steady tempo. And it is plays like this that reaffirm your belief in the theatre’s power as a social and political force that can open up some truly thought-provoking conversations.

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Three Sisters

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Cordelia Lynn

Almeida Theatre / directed by Rebecca Frecknall

Seen on April 15, 2019

Score: 4.5 / 5

“I’m bored, bored, bored.” The refrain, occasionally spoken but frequently felt, is at the heart of what Chekhov’s Three Sisters depicts over the course of its four scenes. In the wake of their father’s death, the Sergeyevna sisters feel trapped and doomed to unhappiness in a provincial Russian town, yearning for an idealised return to the Moscow of their childhood. Joined in this restlessness of spirit by their brother and a brigade stationed at their town, the three sisters grapple with virtually all the Big Problems of life: unfulfilling marriages, the search for meaning and love, woes of work, loneliness, depression, and—yes—boredom. The list goes on; characters keep on with their suffering and their articulations of it. Not much happens, but also, strangely, beautifully, everything happens. By the end, the manifold mysteries, pains, and joys of life appear to have been laid bare before our eyes in all their haunting and relatable simplicity.

This new “version” by Cordelia Lynn is not so much a critical adaptation of Chekhov’s play (of the sort that the Almeida often favours) as an unrestrained, fresh translation of it, sprinkled with a handful of additional speeches, dialogues, and nonverbal moments. Especially when examined on the page, her script—insofar as it is hers—may even appear to be too loyal to the original. Still, what Lynn does with Chekhov’s already understated language is commendable: There is a noticeable tenderness, as well as an expected colloquialism, that distinguishes her work on the play. Perhaps the greatest sign of her achievement in this regard is that for anyone not overly familiar with the original text, it would be hard to draw a sharp line between what might be hers and what is Chekhov’s. It’s as though she has put the play into a space of her own making and let it breathe and marinate there for a while, keeping its spirit and shape very much intact but invigorating its verbal texture towards a hard-hitting immediacy. Not that Chekhov’s language is in dire need of refreshing, but Lynn’s rendering refracts it through a contemporary parlance that thankfully doesn’t become too jarring. Her authorial hand is mostly absent from our sight, though we know it’s always there, lurking somewhere behind.

As in her recent Summer and Smoke, Rebecca Frecknall’s staging is at once subdued and bold, lyrical and engaging, which is supremely fitting for a play of this nature. In her hands, Chekhov’s landmark realism becomes almost exclusively a matter of characterisation and delivery, loosening its hold on scenography. Bits and pieces from what would be a conventional Chekhov production—chairs, lamps, candles—populate Hildegard Bechtler’s minimalist and punchy design, but Frecknall estranges and aestheticises them to the point of poetry, multiplying their utilities in ways that bolster the production’s choreographic vibrancy. While this reliance on certain props for such atmospheric effect is not always consistent in its logic, it does help the action stand on its own, distancing it from its specific historical setting—one that has a rather spectral presence in this take on the play.

In addition, Frecknall’s visual foregrounding of the brother Andrey’s mounting sense of isolation and entrapment is a most welcome approach to the play’s curious handling of his character in the shadow of his sisters. Chekhov might seem to prioritise the three young women both in the play’s title and in its central story, but Andrey is an integral part of all that goes on and has a tormented psyche not unlike those of his sisters. Through some thoughtful moments of visual composition, Frecknall draws our attention to this component of the play, magnifying its dormant emotional impact.

The titular sisters are played with controlled bravura by Patsy Ferran, Peal Chanda, and Ria Zmitrowicz: Ferran’s Olga wages a private and silent war in her mind against herself and her fate, but with a calm that is always on the cusp of dissolution—indeed, explosion. Chanda’s Masha is perpetually and visibly pained, so much so that even fleeting moments of joy have a hard time leaving an impression on her face. Zmitrowicz’s youthful and sensitive Irina gradually surrenders her optimism to a physically sickening anxiety. Both individually and as a trio, these three actors convey with impressive precision different facets of human suffering, all the while signalling the strength and resilience that they derive from each other’s company. Among the supporting cast, Elliot Levey (as Masha’s husband, Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin) strikes a resonant balance between the self-consciously comic and the silently despairing, and Peter McDonald (as the lieutenant colonel Alexander Ignatevich Vershinin) is both soulful and steadfast in his convictions. Alan Williams, too, gives a delightful performance as the jaded sage Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin. Truly, the entire company works like a well-oiled machine with a big, human heart.

Jack Knowles’ elegantly modulating lights and George Dennis’ sound design, which is equal parts animated and mellow, have a big part to play in what makes this Three Sisters so tonally rich. This is a production that knows well when to make concrete the play’s divergent sensibilities and when to let them percolate in the air, in silence and with grace. The unfaltering combination of commanding performances and searing tableaus situates us in a world where despair and hope are inextricably linked to each other—a painfully recognisable world where, even if life’s greatest puzzles may never be solved, they can at least be fiercely wrestled with and turned into great art.

 

 

 

Hamilton

Hamilton / book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Victoria Palace Theatre / directed by Thomas Kail

Seen on April 11, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

(I know I’m late to the party with this, but here it goes, short and sweet.) A consummate production with big brawns, a big brain, and a big heart, Hamilton is an artistic achievement whose stakes and borders go well beyond those we often associate with musicals. This true symphony of visual, aural, and kinetic energies works almost in the vein of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Whether the stage hosts the entire cast in one of the many scenes of vibrant, hectic choreography, or only one actor standing stiffly (but singing heartily), the effect is consistently visceral: every detail counts and works. Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrites the rulebook of musical theatre with astonishing dexterity and imagination, in ways that both interrogate and entertain the audience. The London cast, led by Jamael Westman as Hamilton, is immensely talented and could not be more comfortable in the skin of their characters. Not only Thomas Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography create magnetic fields of sincere bravura, but all elements of the design are supremely blended with one another and interwoven into the fabric of this enchanted world. (In particular, Howell Binkley’s lights set a whole new bar for his craft.) In my annals of theatre-going, neither hip-hop nor American history had never been this aesthetically pleasing and rousing. An elegantly wild meditation on history, nationhood, and the very idea of biography, Hamilton more than lives up to the hype.

All About Eve

All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Noel Coward Theatre / adapted and directed for the stage by Ivo van Hove

Seen on March 7, 2019

Score: 4 / 5

Adapted from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, All About Eve brings to the theatre a story that already belongs there, that of the increasingly toxic relationship between two women—Margo Channing, a popular but aging Broadway star, and Eve Harrington, a mysterious young fan who insinuates herself into Margo’s life, progressing from being her assistant to her understudy and finally her rival. As Eve threatens Margo’s career and personal relationships, not only do the real roots of Margo’s insecurities come above ground, but Eve’s own ambition finds itself headed to a trap of its making. Ivo van Hove’s production builds up and rests on great stretches of surface tension, but without putting anything deeper beneath them.

A sort of flatness reigns over this glassy world from start to finish: evocative, certainly, of the predictable lack of depth that characterises many of these showbiz lives, but also evident in and of itself, tugging at the seams of this explicitly monochromatic production. With so much glam and glitter parading around, the underlying critique—assuming there is one—starts to get countervailed by its own means, letting itself be tempted by its very subject. Perhaps some of this has to do with the generally unexceptional performances, as moments of nuanced and muscular expression are the outliers, rather than the norm. Something is certainly missing: the energy—or the chemistry, if you will—not so much lags as never takes off in the first place.

Gillian Anderson delivers a needlessly mannered performance that flirts with hyperbole, though at her best, she tantalisingly offers peeks of Margo’s hidden depths, assuring us that they are there, but not to be delved into. For a play that sets much store by the allure of its titular character’s evasiveness, the casting of Lily James as Eve speaks of poor judgment: James does anger very well, imbuing two of the play’s most crucial scenes with a charmingly alien menace, but the remainder of her performance is consistently stagnant and disappointing, devoid of any convincing complexities. But we are, thankfully, treated to the endless wonders of Monica Dolan, whose dynamic rendering of Karen is one of the absolute highlights of the production. Julian Ovenden and Stanley Townsend follow closely behind: Ovenden is magnetically alive as Margo’s partner Bill, and Townsend renders with surprising vigour the critic Addison’s ultimate transformation into a melodramatic force of evil.

All About Eve plays host to many of Ivo van Hove’s signature theatrical gestures. Most of the scenes feature live recordings of on- and off-stage action projected on a big screen, which pulls our attention in several directions more than it provides us with the luxury to get beneath the skin of certain moments. A strong emphasis on simultaneity thus undergirds the play; we are often given access to scenes that unfold concurrently but in different spaces. It’s worth pointing out the slight overuse of projections: it’s not always clear what purpose they are meant to serve. When we see close-ups of Margo’s and Eve’s faces reflected on the mirror, for instance, the effect is stark and the dramaturgical intent clear. Yet our prolonged exposure to, say, the silent goings-on in a kitchen during a party rarely amounts to much.

Jan Versweyfeld’s expansive set reinforces the play’s self-reflexivity; it lays bare the artifice of the theatre in elegant ways, alternately exposing and hiding the brick walls and slight clutter of the backstage. An D’huys’s costumes are anachronistically sleek reflections of the characters’ taste and class, while Tom Gibbons’ sound, which plays for long stretches of time as a sort of ambient noise, creates permanent tension (sometimes at the expense of clarity). The look of the whole is undeniably velvety and lustrous, though it has a disquieting coldness of its own. The vanity mirror that often stands centre stage works superbly: as the lights around it glow with intensity, it almost creates another experiential realm within the world of the play. Ivo van Hove’s longstanding interest in creating deeply resonant, even painterly, stage images comes to the fore here most forcefully when our perceptual angle is anchored on this mirror.

In terms of story, All About Eve neither promises nor delivers any mind-expanding substance. This is a melodramatic tale that knows itself and does little to play with its own bounds and rules, whether seriously or light-heartedly. It would, of course, be marvellous if what started out as a plot of ambition teetering on (self-)destruction had taken slightly different directions and thrown us off a bit. But we end where we start, both thematically and structurally. It appears that we already know, more or less, somehow, how things will end. So that final tableau is far less surprising than it is aesthetically moving. Maybe that’s a statement in itself, maybe not.

Medea

Medea by Simon Stone, after Euripides

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam & Barbican Centre / directed by Simon Stone

Seen on March 8

Score: 5 / 5

Simon Stone’s radically reimagined and decluttered Medea is a visceral take on Euripides’ classic tragedy. In this bold and minimalist adaptation, in which Medea has become Anna, she and her husband Lucas are medical scientists living in a world of YouTube videos, McDonald’s, and sexting (each of which finds its way into Stone’s elegantly written script at pivotal moments). The play is firmly embedded within a contemporary milieu, but its scenic backdrop is none other than Peter Brook’s empty space taken to its lyrical extreme, as timeless as it gets: an all-consuming sea of whiteness, upon which, at some point, the ashes of Anna’s tragedy begin to fall with ominous grace. Even though our attention is occasionally diverted to projections that capture close-ups of the onstage action, in ways that are narratively integrated into Stone’s version, it is the razor-sharp performances of the actors that claim the entirety of our focus, charging this production with its unadulterated power. And that without any grand gestures: a near-geometrical but poetic sense of blocking and physicality infuses the actors’ ownership of this disquieting space. Marieke Heebink, as Anna, is especially dazzling: in a performance that throbs achingly with life, she unleashes and contracts, lets go and takes it all in.

Both Stone’s text and Heebink’s rendering portray Anna as a rightfully unhinged victim, but without brushing over the extremities of her cunning and steadfastness. Save for a few moments in which she knowingly pushes Lucas’s buttons, we are mostly asked to sympathise with her, and we are given such a finely wrought perspective into her feelings that her subsequent actions gain a tender luminosity. “I have given you everything!” she exclaims at one point to Lucas, who appears to have squandered all her love and support for the sake of a girl half his age. Over the first half of the play, it becomes clear that Anna, recently discharged from psychiatric treatment for having poisoned her adulterous husband, genuinely wants to make things better, pick them back up and put into order. Heebink’s eyes glisten with the intensity of her desire for a return to normalcy, to a loving family. Because we witness her sincerity and insistence in this attempt, the eventual downfall unfolds even more disturbingly, with a sense of utter inevitability on Anna’s part, and one of strong culpability on Lucas’s.

This humbly handsome production runs for no more than 80 minutes, but by the end, it feels as though we have been in this scorching world for much longer. And what a world it is—bare, bleak, but fully alive.

The Son

The Son by Florian Zeller

Kiln Theatre / directed by Michael Longhurst / translated by Christopher Hampton

Seen on March 7, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

Transfixing and electrifying, Florian Zeller’s The Son is the sort of play that puts a lump of unease right into your stomach and doesn’t take it back even after the curtain falls. Yet as the haunting reach of this feeling grows, the play rarely lets you forget how deceptively simple its story is. Deceptive, because it’s virtually impossible to process and give an account of the plot without making certain interpretive leaps, without taking sides. From one perspective, The Son is about a divorced couple’s inability, due to their shocking self-absorption, to manage their adolescent son’s severe depression and suicidal tendencies. From another, it’s about their inadvertent—indeed, universal—encounter with the vexing question of how much their love for him can actually help him heal.

If these descriptive alternatives take the focus away from Nicolas, the tormented, struggling soul responsible for the play’s mounting tension, it’s not at all because his complex character is not central to it, but rather because Zeller’s chief preoccupation is how his parents respond to his illness. Partially blind as Anne and Pierre seem to be to it, the pressing gravity of Nicolas’ depression is actually all too evident: the play rather pulsates around, and chronicles, the ways in which they do and do not deal with it. I, for one, have found myself, at several times, audibly gasping at their selfish misguidedness, but not without the awareness that the play easily accommodates opposing tendencies to approach their parental challenge from a more tolerant perspective. Though the plot gets a bit predictable towards the end, Zeller’s treatment of his characters is anything but so, particularly when it comes to the words with which they try to bridge the gulfs separating them. Zeller’s language deftly combines the prosaic with the profound (in ways that reminded me of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things), and Christopher Hampton’s fluid translation is obviously integral to this effect.

As richly textured as Zeller’s play is, it owes a good deal of its cumulative impact to Michael Longhurst’s searingly calibrated production. This is, all in all, a work of great finesse: The cast is uniformly brilliant—especially John Light as the slowly unravelling, smugly controlling Pierre and Laurie Kynaston as the pained and manipulative Nicolas. Longhurst stages this Ibsenite tragedy in an environment of estranged realism, designed superbly by Lizzie Clachan. A chic but spare living room accommodates all the scenes, even when exact locations change. What at first appears to be painstaking realism gradually subverts itself: as the material signs of Nicolas’s disturbed, disruptive behaviour invade an otherwise ‘logical’ space and accrete grotesquely upon it, the increasingly off-kilter set becomes a visual counterpart to the story’s disturbing trajectory and embodies its tame uncanniness. Lee Curran’s lighting, which subtly helps the play oscillate between its moments of filial warmth and clinical despair, contributes to this strange but powerful tone. The sonic background to much of this, composed and designed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, is indispensably ambient; razor-sharp in its timing and changing dominance, it keeps exhaling wafts of harrowing beauty through the entire piece. Orchestrated with sensitive precision by Longhurst, all these elements harmonize strikingly and testify to the whole team’s meticulous engagement with the play’s covert rhythms.

Even when The Son comes daringly close to luxuriating in the pathos of some of its scenes, it manages to keep its distance from that realm of directness. Instead, a sense of unassuming ambiguity runs through it all, and does so with gusto, capturing something both ineffable and familiar. It’s at once delightful and frightening to be so engulfed by it.

Shipwreck

Shipwreck by Anne Washburn

Almeida Theatre / directed by Rupert Goold

Seen on February 16, 2019

Score: 3 / 5

It might not be best critical practice to think about a new play and its first production in different terms and as separate entities, as though one had only a passing bearing on the other. There are times, however, when the quality differential between the two is so stark that the distinction has to be made. Probably the more common vice is to subject great plays to disappointing renderings, but the reverse is also possible, with a disappointing play receiving a laudable production. Shipwreck at the Almeida is a case in point, as Rupert Goold’s fantastic cast and notable staging are wasted on Anne Washburn’s dramatically inert, shockingly dull play.

Let’s begin with the play. Shipwreck alternates between two narrative strands that purport to intersect at the very end: One depicts a group of predominantly white, upper-class friends who come together for a weekend retreat at a country house and get lost in an endless, meandering discussion on Trump’s presidency. The other is primarily a series of introspective and inquisitive monologues centred on the coming-of-age story of Mark (played with great finesse by Fisayo Akinade), a Black man who has been adopted and raised by a white couple. Further intercutting these is a diptych of satirical scenes that imagine Trump in highly caricatured episodes of political scheming: in the first one, presumably taking place in the early 2000’s, he is visited by George W. Bush, whom he ends up combating for the presidency, and in the second, much closer to our time, he demands loyalty from James Comey in a now-infamous dinner.

If all this sounds like a jumble of ill-fitting pieces, then it’s because Washburn’s play is exactly that. It is a baggy hodgepodge of random scenes of political commentary—a dramaturgical mess that doesn’t even make an effort to pull itself together. It looks more like a rough draft, which is potentially pregnant with multiple plays, than the latest work of a dramatist who is one of the most inventive of her generation (and whose Mr. Burns, in my opinion, is one of the greatest American plays of this decade). In Shipwreck, Washburn’s loosely constellated scenes either drag on forever or come to an abrupt halt before they even start rolling; most of her characters are mind-bogglingly flat and serve merely as argumentative mouthpieces; and her attempts to infuse the quotidian with the mythical—which was the superb achievement of Mr. Burns—keep falling flat. Overarching and aggravating these weaknesses is the glaring problem of structure, as the play’s many discrete components refuse to fit together in any exciting or meaningful way. With thoughtful characterisation and plotting thus discarded, there’s virtually nothing that propels the play forward. And in a production that runs for 3 hours and 30 minutes, this is problematic at best.

The play’s political discourse is blindingly explicit, so much so that one of the scenes is self-reflexively—and gratuitously—devoted to a discussion of what it means to write a political play today, with the characters spouting examples from Shakespeare and Euripides, and one of them concluding that our immature penchant for “mystery” is what has created these “eternal” plays with no political specificity. Taking this as its own maxim, Washburn’s play desperately wants to make specific and provocative points about the manifold absurdities and woes of contemporary American politics. Names of political figures keep buzzing in the air; references to specific events of the last few years abound in every scene; and many of the political questions asked by the characters end up getting directed at the audience itself. All this, of course, within a seemingly diverse group: the country-house crew includes liberals, conservatives, and at least one self-designated radical; also thrown into the mix is a person of colour, who happens to be one of the two gay men. We learn at some point, in passing, that one of the couples is “1% rich,” whereas another one is going through a rough patch financially. (That covers economic diversity, right?) It’s hardly a surprise that issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender are virtually absent from any of the diatribes voiced by the characters: they can get quite myopic when it comes to matters of identity.

Not that a play about Trump, or any political play, ought to deal with any or all of these categories of experience, but one can’t help but wonder why Washburn keeps eliding such concerns, not even gesturing towards them. Is it because this particular group of characters is in no position to relate to and comment on the plight of the precarious under Trump’s government? Perhaps. Is this why we have Mark in this play? Yes, I suspect, even though his story has very little to do with Trump.

Besides its farcical tokenism, the ways in which the play engages with political realities and questions are consistently trite. Only a handful of the views articulated by the characters are actually worth pondering and pursuing in detail; the rest are clichés by now. It is telling that Washburn doesn’t actually do anything with these positions; there’s no intellectual or dramatic arc drawn with—or through—any of them. There is not even an intriguing debate of opposites, of the sort that one would rightly expect to witness in a play so insistently political. What happens is that ideas come and go, pseudo-debates rise and fall. And they fall not with a bang but with a whimper. Whenever this prolonged chitchat loses steam, characters resort to spiritual or mythical meditations that always find their way back to Trump. In one of these, Trump is the Antichrist, whom Pope Francis may or may not have recognised in their meeting; in another, Trump is actually an angel, and it is we who are demons, thinking poorly of him.

Amidst such cringe-inducing speculations, the closest Washburn comes to gripping our attention sustainedly and meaningfully is when one of her characters, who is clearly anti-Trump, admits to having voted for him in a purple state—a fact he has hidden even from his husband. His protracted, but intermittently unfolding, account of this perplexing act constitutes one of the few episodes in Shipwreck where we feel we are in the presence of a dramatic character whose politics and psychology are somehow connected.

To give credit where credit is due: There are moments when Washburn’s language soars to affecting heights of lyrical power, when a throwaway remark gets imbued with an otherworldly halo or a brief scene of intellectual back-and-forth glows with life, even if fleetingly. This is often the case in Mark’s monologues, in which he reflects on his upbringing in a white community and ponders, with impressive imagination and eloquence, how the history of race and racism in America has long haunted him. These are dramatically vibrant instances, but they are a minority in this sprawling work and fail to develop into resonant through-lines. If anything, they should encourage the audience to wonder how things might have turned out if Washburn had just picked one central idea for this play and nurtured it with care.

It is, then, not the play itself but pretty much everything else that makes this production not merely endurable, but oddly watchable. It is an absolute pity that such an overwhelmingly strong cast has to make do with this imperfect script. Rupert Goold has assembled a formidable group of actors without even a slightly weak link. All of them do their best to stretch these quasi-characters beyond their narrow limits, not allowing them to slide into cartoon, while doing full justice to their peculiar Americanisms. Goold’s direction, too, deserves praise, as the cast handle the play’s many clunky transitions with minimal awkwardness and animate even the most stagnant moments with sleek blocking and sharp delivery.

Goold stages the play primarily on a round wooden platform, which also doubles as a giant ceremonial table, around which sit not only the actors, but also a dozen audience members. The onstage audience acts, at least in theory, as civic voyeurs or silent participants of what passes as political debate (and, later, ritual) in this work. This configuration of the space, designed by Miriam Buether, is an ideal choice to represent the play’s (aspiring) straddle between the epic and the intimate: actors alternate between occupying the far edge of the platform (thus leaving the whole thing empty) and dispersing all over its surface, at times coming almost face-to-face with the spectators. Indeed, from candlelit intimacy to phantasmagorical spectacle, the range of moods that materialize upon this platform is refreshingly expansive. Apropos of this, there’s a sense in which the play keeps citing, whether intentionally or not, the first and final acts of Mr. Burns, where the characters chat around a campfire and perform an elaborate musical pageant, respectively. Shipwreck overindulges in the former mode, which is why, I think, the free-floating bits of overstated parody have been added to the play ex post facto—as a sort of dramaturgical compensation, a would-be reward for our patience.

In most of the transitions, Luke Halls’ videos are projected on the Almeida’s brick wall in flashes of energising grandeur. Though it is often unclear what these satirical visuals of fictive Trump iconography have to do with any of the stage action, they are nonetheless invigorating. Deftly atmospheric, Jack Knowles’ lighting conveys the play’s near-manic mood swings with much refinement. Visually speaking, then, there’s a lot that keeps one engaged, and it is partly thanks to these elements that the runtime of the production does not become a recipe for boredom.

Ultimately, it would not be an exaggeration to conclude that the real shipwreck here is no other than Washburn’s play. But the same cannot and should not be said of the production as a whole, as much as it can be extricated from the text it embodies (though there is obviously a limit to such conceptual division). With its nuanced performances, imaginative staging, and arresting tableaus, this is commendable work. There is surely a good play to be written about the whole Trump hellscape, and this cast and this creative team might be what that play deserves, but Shipwreck is far from rising to that challenge.