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St. Louis

Blackbird
The Repertory Theater Of Saint Louis

I am surely not the first reviewer to notice the connection between David Harrower's name and the harrowing experience of watching his Olivier Award-winning one act play, Blackbird, but the comparison is so deadly accurate that it can stand being made again. I can think of any number of plays—Evie's Waltz, for example, which preceded this play in the Studio space at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis—which create greater tension, but none offhand which makes the audience more uncomfortable. From the abrupt beginning, practically in mid-word of a confrontation, to the garish fluorescent lighting and the chaotic set (a sterile factory break room littered with the debris of fast food meals), everything about the context in which this story unfolds seems deliberately designed to be disruptive, to jar the audience out of anything like a comfort zone.

The story, or rather the situation, for there is nothing much of a plot in it,  is an agonizing and brutal ninety-minute confrontation unfolding in real time between a 55-year old man and the woman, now in her twenties, with whom he had sexual relations when they were forty and twelve, respectively. What fascinates Harrower, and what won him the Olivier against some formidable competition, is the rendering of the encounter itself, the graphic and frighteningly intense portrait of two characters in a situation in which neither really has a motive except her feral need to confront and his to avoid it.

Neither of these characters is sympathetic, though each has vulnerabilities, and there is just enough ambiguity about their actions, in the present and in the past, to make it clear to the audience that passing judgment might be dangerous. Otherwise, we'd simply be choosing sides in a brawl between a despicable man, who is desperately trying to forget that he served three years and seven months of a six-year sentence for sexual abuse of a child, and a clearly damaged and probably deranged woman who is desperately trying to forget that she not only allowed but encouraged the man's actions.

The events of fifteen years ago come out in bits and pieces, and then in two longish monologs, in which it is revealed that each party was (again with a good bit of ambiguity) mistaken about crucial events and intentions. It is important to say that Harrower places the blame for what happened on the man—as it must be—but that issues of blame and guilt for the sexual acts themselves are almost peripheral to his concerns. This play is a blow-by-blow account of an irrational encounter with an irrational outcome and an analysis of the chaotic opacity of the emotions and desires which drive this encounter, and it is exactly these characteristics that make it at the same time fascinating and barely tolerable to watch and listen to.

The actors, Christopher Oden and Carmen Goodine, are faced with the enormous technical difficulty of playing at or near the top of their emotional ranges for extended periods of time within an arm's reach of the front row of seats. They have the further difficulty of trying to portray characters whose motives are a mystery even to themselves, and whose actions, as the play reaches its climax, require great physical control and coordination. They acquit themselves beautifully and deserved the warm applause which greeted their work on opening night.

Director Amy Saltz keeps the pace of this ninety-minute one-act play under control—it must have been a constant struggle to keep it from running away—and manages both the dialog and the movement with dexterity. The sound design, with original credit given to J. Hagenbuckle and adaptations by Rusty Wandall, is an effective element in the play's disruptive assault on the audience's complacency.  So, for that matter, is Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting. It's hard to tell how much latitude set designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella had to work with—photos of other productions show much the same overall design—but he has done a nice job of shoehorning the set into the studio space so as to create the necessary excruciating intimacy between performers and audience.

In short, I didn't much like the experience of watching David Harrower's Blackbird, for the same reasons I don't like to watch combat in general, but I suspect that is the reaction he wanted to provoke, and there is certainly no denying the brilliance with which he recreates this memorably disturbing encounter. The show will run through February 8th; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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