Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
These two lost lambs share a genuine cord of affection, but also despise one another because each represents the fact that no one else in their world will have them. Myers and Saggau also play all the other characters who make Sebastian and Claryssa's lives a living hell: teachers, police officers, parents, the bullies and mean girls at schooland one character who comes to life, at least for Sebastian, his namesake Saint Sebastian.
Australian playwright Declan Greene wrote Moth in 2010, his first commissioned work. It was produced by Melbourne's Arena Theatre and immediately acclaimed. Since then Greene has been a rising star among Australia's dramatists. This year he assumed the dual roles of artistic director and CEO of the Griffin Theatre in Sydney, Australia's leading company devoted to the development and production of new work. Moth makes it easy to see why Greene is so highly regarded. This impressive sample of his work is being staged at Bryant Lake Bowl for just two weekends.
Greene's dramatic structure never quite makes it clear what we are seeing, which is one of the play's strengths. At times Sebastian and Claryssa seem to be telling one another the story of what has happened to them, reliving each heartfelt episode for one another, with Sebastian often breaking into utterly silly burlesque renditions of the people mentioned, and Claryssa telling him with as much severity as she can muster, to knock it off. Other times, it feels like we are in the present, watching things occur in the now, rather than being reported to us in retrospect. Then there are the dreams, with both Claryssa and Sebastian having vivid dreams, both fanciful and fearful, with so much connection between them that at one point one asks the other "Wait, is this your dream or mine?."
This fluidity in perspective mirrors their untethered lives, where they truly have difficulty distinguishing their present danger from past pain, or knowing the difference between what they dreamed and what they lived. This all calls for razor-sharp performances. Both Myers and Saggau are remarkable, delivering both the authentic voice of lost youth, and the intelligence of deeper insights into these characters. They constantly pivot from character to another by altering their voices, their posture, and the muscles in their faces, losing not a second in the transition.
In one harrowing scene, a bully named Clinton catches Claryssa kissing Sebastian in an open field and mercilessly taunts them, insisting that Sebastian was out "walking the dog," in cruel reference to Claryssa. Soon the word "walking" is replaced by the word "fucking," and when Sebastian tries good-naturedly to deflect the accusation, Clinton and his pals attack himjust because he is such an obvious, pathetic victim. Claryssa looks on, furious that Sebastian didn't defend her honor, horrified to see her only friend treated like garbage, with Saggau switching line by line between Claryssa and Clinton. Myers makes the same instant transitions back and forth between the flesh and blood Sebastian and his fever dream vision of Saint Sebastian, gauntly looking down from the crucifix to which he is bound. Myers also has a remarkable gift for physicality, including the ability to leap high in the air and land cross-legged, seated on the floor. Both actors deliver astonishing work that cuts to the gut.
Director Ben Lohrberg shows a firm mastery of this challenging dramatic structure, drawing out the powerhouse performances, and ensuring that the two mesh seamlessly with one another. Lohrberg builds the growing tension that mounts throughout the play, with a climactic scene that threatens to unleash annihilation to all parties, without sacrificing the tender moments and heartbreaking secrets Sebastian and Claryssa share.
This is truly a small scale production, but with large impact. In addition to directing, Lohrberg designed the lighting and sound, both of which are tremendously important elements in telling the story and in shifts between the now, the past, and the dream state. Actor Sophina Saggau also devised the costumes, which are appropriate for each character: drab and a bit threatening for Claryssa, a bit juvenile looking for Sebastian. There is no set, nor would it make sense to have one. A black curtain that wraps around the sides and rear of the tiny stage at Bryant Lake Bowl provides hiding places from which Sebastian sometimes pounces out, like a cat made giddy from catnip.
Sebastian's encounter with Saint Sebastian results in the boy believing that he has been given a holy mission. His image of Saint Sebastian dissolves into a swarm of the creatures that give the play its name. Near the play's end, Saggau and Myers stand back to back, creating a beautiful realized illusion of the myth Sebastian endeavors to inhabit, believing himself to be the avenging angel that his world richly deserves. While Sebastian and Claryssa are equally present and compelling characters, it is the boy's journey that drives the narrative and that we feel most deeply.
At the end of MothI found myself connecting Sebastian and Claryssa's misery with some vestigial pain from my own distant adolescencepain most adults, if they are honest, had in some form or other. I wanted to be able to assure them that things will turn out well, that they are just fine, and that it is the world that is screwed up. But, because of the world they live in, it is impossible for them to hear that message. It is a sign of engaging theater when the audience takes interest in a work's characters. Moth took me a further. Not only did I find myself interested in these two emotionally bedraggled kidsI found myself loving them.
Moth runs through March 7, 2020, at the Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $20.00 at the door, $18.00 in advance. For tickets and information, call 612-825-8949 or visit bryantlakebowl.com.
Playwright: Declan Greene; Director, Lighting Design and Sound Design: Ben Lohrberg; Costume Designer: Sophina Saggau; Producers: Ben Lohrberg and Sophina Saggau.
Cast: Luke Myers (Sebastian and others), Sophina Saggau (Claryssa and others).