You can tell it’s Fringe Season when theatres ’round the city are suddenly bustling with life at odd hours of the day and escorting people in and out quickly so they can strike a set and get ready for the next show which is happening in, oh, about a minute. Yes, it’s all about endings and beginnings at Fringe which is why it’s rather fitting that I started my rounds this year with two very different plays that both dealt with the same fine line between living and dying, and what you do with that quick snap of a moment in between the two blackouts. Eli and Cheryl Jump takes you off on the wind of fanciful, magical, dreaminess while Look After You shows the realistic portrait of a life interrupted by a flash of illness that comes quickly and takes certainty with it. Both plays speak to the frailty of what we take for granted every day, both highlight what it means to be a survivor.
On Friday I saw Eli and Cheryl Jump written by Daniel McCoy, directed by Nicole A. Watson and featuring Charles Linshaw (Eli) and Cassandra Vincent (Cheryl et al). I’d had the pleasure of chatting with Dan and interviewing him for this column so I was a little more prepared than my fellow audience members about what to expect at the top of the show. Still, as promised, Martha Goode’s amazing sound design does much to start this play off with a wail … the pump of adrenaline that went coursing through my system within the first few moments did an amazing job of making me (and I suspect everyone else in the audience) part of the play, not just passive spectators. It was a very good(e) way of getting 100% audience buy-in right from the get-go.
Eli and Cheryl Jump tells the sometimes magical, sometimes unbelievable story of Eli and his amazing gift of survival. From a young age Eli could avoid harm, but always had a tricky way of inadvertently sacrificing someone (or something) else in his place, a type of karmic debt handed off to another soul. Of course, by the time Eli realizes that this is happening it’s already too late … there’s been one too many lives lost and one too many parts of his heart that he can’t seem to function without. His once joyful dream now becomes an escape plan; he runs off to New York in the hopes of doing less harm in this huge anonymous pool of humanity. Unfortunately, it’s here that he does perhaps the greatest harm of all.
There are only two actors in this play, but several characters. As Eli moves through his life he encounters several pivitol women, each of whom is played by Cassandra Vincent. While Charles Linshaw has the arc of the story on his shoulders, it is Cassandra Vincent who holds the nuance of the story; with out her and her talent of transforming into the various women in Eli’s life with the simple use of a shawl, or a drawl this would just be the story of a lone, sad man who exiles himself in order to not hurt anyone. It is also Cassandra’s New York landlady which provides some of the lighter notes to this play, a nice moment of comic relief before the play gets back to business.
The last scene of the play, which brings us back around to the first scene, is so well done that it’s almost too painful to watch. I was so emotionally transfixed by not only the actual scene being played out, but by the rush of memories (you’ll just have to see it to know what I’m referencing), that I’m not sure I was even remembering to breath until the show was over. I’d read the script before seeing the show and I’d said to myself then (after wiping away tears) … if this is half as good in person as it is on the page I will be a wreck afterwards.
That’s a good thing … theatre should move people to tears. Or chills. Or shaking. Or all three.
Eli and Cheryl Jump
Ignited States in Association with Crosstown Playwrights
Writer, Daniel McCoy
Director, Nicole A. Watson
VENUE #9: The Players Loft
Remaining Shows: Thursday August 20 @ 7:15; Monday August 24 @ 3:15; Friday August 28 @ 11; Saturday August 29 @ 12:45
Look After You – by Louise Flory, directed by David Stallings
Hannah (Louise Flory) is a photographer which makes sense; this play is not just a snapshot of a life but (to stretch a metaphor) this play shows us Hannah’s world clearly framed through her lens after an aneurysm has taken away a lot of the way she used to look at life. Her life before is fuzzy and half forgotten, everything which came after is captured in flashes of stark realization. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, what do you do when some of your pictures are gone?
We come upon Hannah on the cusp of a brain aneurysm; her boyfriend Jake (Jason Altman) is devoted to her, which is obvious, but is also slowly growing angry/fearful/uncomfortable [insert not so smiley emotion here] with her condition. And how couldn’t he be? Apparently without the engagement ring on her finger (taken off before surgery) Hannah has forgotten that Jake has asked her to marry him; and in her present condition he’s not so sure he should ask her again. Flory (wearing her play writing hat) does an excellent job of showing how this is not as black and white as it would appear; this is not simply about a man afraid of committing to a woman who now is living in a limbo state, sometimes remembering things they did, sometimes not, and always living in the shadow of the possibility that she could “re-bleed” any time and die. (“The statistics are not pretty” we’re reminded over and over again in one form or another of casual conversation between each pairing of characters). Nor has he stopped loving her now that she is “damaged”. Rather, he’s contemplative … and sometimes being too thoughtful is a dangerous thing.
Jason is a writer, currently penning a book about Sherpas who scale Everest over and over again without harm despite the threat of avalanches, falling rocks, severe exhaustion, sickness, infections and of course accidental death. By giving Jake an obsession with Sherpas who climb and always come back, Flory simultaneously makes Jake heartbreaking yet hopeful. Here is a man who is consumed with trying to understand how to beat the odds, he needs an answer on what makes a survivor survive. What is the key, the magic wand, the secret incantation that keeps these Sherpas alive year after year, trip up the mountain after trip up the mountain? By studying them, will he find it? And even if he does, will knowing their secret be enough to then save Hannah?
In a supporting role is Lucy (Adi Kurtchik), Hannah’s Get-Right-Down-To-Business Sister who arrives like a whirlwind and over turns every stone in the hopes that her sister’s condition is really just the fault of everyone else’s ineptitude (she doesn’t want to hear that anyone else has done research, that any of the mental exercises are strenuous enough, or that Hannah is being realist [read fatalistic] enough). Kurtchik is an absolute gem, and surprisingly layered; while she plays the one note invasive sister very well, when it’s necessary for her to blow up, or show her softer side she is alternately volcanic and vulnerable and even when she’s annoying Hannah you tend to, if not be on her side, then at least see where she’s coming from.
Similarly, what could have been merely expositional scenery … the role of Jake’s friend Paul … is brought charmingly to life by Lowell Byers. He’s a bartender by trade and carries the easy grace of someone who’s used to being taken into someone’s confidence. When Jake reveals that Hannah no longer remembers that she and Jake are engaged, Paul argues convincingly and from the heart as to why Jake needs to tell Hannah the truth. He’s a good best friend to Jake, but over all he’s just a really good friend to Hannah when he needs to be, even though she has no memory of knowing him at all.
Some of the best plays conclude not so much with an ending, but with a beginning, as if what you’ve just watched was the prelude to a life you can now settle back and continue to imagine. Look After You is definitely one of those plays. At the end we’re left with just as many unanswered questions about these characters, their lives, their motives, what will happen next, and how it will all bear out, but at least we now know them all a little better, and we had the opportunity to walk in their shoes for a little while.
Look After You
Maieutic Theatre Works-MTWorks
Writer, Louise Flory
Director, David Stallings
VENUE #16: The SoHo Playhouse
Remaining Shows: Friday August 28 @ 9:30 Saurdtay August 29 @ 1:30