Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
TLA's actors use their bodies not only to portray people, but as every part of what needs to be seen and heard on stage. In The Devout, when trees are needed, actors gracefully spread their arms in varied poses and, voila, trees. A scene calls for a pit of snakes, and actors writhe in reptilian rhythms, their tongues reaching upward. A door separates the interior of a cottage from its yard: the actors make a creaking sound that tells us the door is being open and closed as they pass through. A group of worshipers hold candles during a sacred ceremonywe know this because the actors cup their hands together with fingers flickering upward in a manner that could only be the dancing flames of a candle.
As far as imagining new worlds together, TLA has transported audiences to the desolation of the Dust Bowl, to immigrant tenements and sweatshops of early 1900s New York, to the lives of ruthless prohibition bootleggers, to the locked-in world of a coma-afflicted woman, and on a riotous pirate adventure. The Devout travels furthest back in time, to ancient Greece, where a commune of women who worship Athena, the goddess of war, domestic arts, and wisdom, live and work together as sisters in a temple atop a rocky crag that sits below the summit from which Athena wields her power.
The narrative follows the path of a newcomer, Damaris, a girl who defies her mother, travels over harrowing chasms and up steep bluffs, and passes a rigorous entrance test to be accepted into the temple community. She and a cluster of five other girls joke and gossip, like a typical group of girls today, but when they conduct combat exercises, hunt, or do their assigned work tasks each strives to meet the high standards of their order. Damaris reveals gifts that give her a very special role among the group and put her at odds with the way leadership and power has been defined. Like Medusa in the Greek myths, Damaris unavoidably breaks with the established laws, but the outcome for Damaris veers from Medusa's tragic fate, a testament to the power of sisterhood and justice.
The ensemble members have co-created The Devout, building upon director Isabel Nelson's concept, and all of the actors fit easily into the roles they have spun for themselves, while also stepping back as needed to become a freshwater spring, the anchors for a narrow rope bridge, a bird, a tree, or any other element the story calls for. Siddeeqah Shabazz plays Damaris with unwavering sincerity, her idealism, determination and humility giving her a radiant countenance. Adelin Phelps plays two distinct characters, a chattering, somewhat ditzy worshiper named Eulalia and the steely high priestess charged with enforcing Athena's laws without mercy.
Allison Witham exudes wit and self-assurance as a feisty worshipper named Petra who is always up for a prank or a joke but can be counted upon in a crunch, and brings serenity to her portrayal of a retired priestess who helps Damaris begin her journey to serve Athena. Cristina Castro is terrific in two very different roles, as the worshipper Filomena, who wants to be called Fil and cultivates a tough-girl, seen-it-all persona, and as Una, a gentle elder whose supervision of the aviary and its sublime birds gives her unique insight into the heart of Athena. Natavia Lewis makes a powerful impression as Antiope, exhibiting both the greatest strength and the most self-discipline of the worshipers, while Heather Bunch effectively expresses the fears of a mother whose child seeks a dangerous path, as well as the worshipper Agata.
The additional element that breathes life into the Devout is a musical accompaniment and sound-score composed and performed by Walken Schweigert. With guitar, violin, a pleasing instrument that looks like a cross between an accordion and a xylophone, and a collection of sound-producing implements, Schweigert heightens the emotions that exude throughout the tale, and adds the sounds of naturethe rustling of wind, the serenade of birdsthat help to create the reality of this mythical setting. With no designed set, the play is performed on an empty stage, before a large blank screen on which only the shifting lights, evocatively designed by Michael Wangen, are used to guide us through scene changes. The costumes that all the actors wear are simple dark tights and long-sleeved shirts covered in long earth-toned jerkins, well suited to a mythological sensibility.
There is certainly a strong feminist current throughout The Devout, with both power and virtue stemming from these young women's impulse to support one another. The play also asserts the dangers of concentrated power attributed to divine sources, along the lines of the phrase attributed to 19th century British politician Lord Acton, "Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The title alludes to devotion to a supreme power, in this case Athena, but it also provides a path for considering devotion directed to a community of sisterhood.
Whatever message audience members take away from The Devout, the grace, economy and imagination with which Transatlantic Love Affair enacts this tale is a joy to experience, and bears testimony to the power of dramatic arts pared down to their simplest form, where the essence of story is everything.
The Devout, a Transatlantic Love Affair production, through February 17, 2019, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $22.00 - $27.00. For tickets call 612-339-4944 or visit illusiontheater.org.
Created by the Ensemble; Conceived and Directed by Isabel Nelson; Music Composed and Performed by: Walken Schweigert; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Assistant Director: Joy Dolo, Producers: Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins.
Cast: Heather Bunch (Mother/Agata/ensemble), Cristina Florencia Castro (Fil/Una/ensemble), Natavia Lewis (Antiope/ensemble), Adelin Phelps (High Priestess/Eulalia/ensemble), Siddeeqah Shabazz (Damaris/ensemble), Allison Witham (Retired Priestess/Petra/ensemble).