Watching the Flux Theatre Ensemble bring August Schulenburg’s “The Lesser Seductions of History” to life is like watching seasoned acrobats performing an intricate, balletic routine; one which -in order to succeed- relies on trust, timing, and blind leaps of faith … knowing that your fellow performers are exactly where they should be and will deftly handle the assist, even as they fully commit to the leap they are taking themselves. One miscalculation and the whole thing comes tumbling down, and then forget about the net. But no one here falls; in fact, they soar. The thrill of watching this seasoned group of actors move between each other and react off one another with precisioned timing is what makes Lesser Seductions so … well … seductive.
In The Lesser Seductions of History (deftly and beautifully directed by Heather Cohn) Schulenburg takes a huge chance, and invites the audience to trust him right up front. The play starts the way all shows start (please silence your cell phones … the exits are there – and there) but the fourth wall is quickly broken as Candice Holdorf (playing a heighten version of Candice Holdorf before transforming into “One”) speaks directly to the audience about what’s about to happen. Acting as narrator, Sherpa and guru Ms. Holdorf also steps into supporting roles as necessary and moves the simultaneously unfolding plots forward. Before the action even begins she informs us that, like a good cup of espresso or a diamond, telling the story of 10 people during 10 years in just 2 hours will take pressure — and she’s here to provide that.
Scenes are literally layered one over the other around the performance area, sound effects are sometimes shared (creating a ripple that would be served less by a linear story telling, but is captivating here) props can meld seamlessly depending on who you’re focused on; what seems to be a benign counter top in a diner where two characters are conducting an interview becomes the foundation of the bridge another character is about to jump from. With little more than sound cues, lighting change ups and (of course) the actors themselves, you soon find the rhythm of the play and automatically learn where to focus your attention.
The Lesser Seductions of History begins in 1961 with newlyweds Marie (Tiffany Clementi) and her poet husband Issac (Jake Alexander) moving into their first apartment, sisters Lizzie (Christina Shipp) and Anisa (Ingrid Nordstrom) mourning the death of their father (Lizzie’s the screw-up, Anisa’s the scientist), Tegan (Kelly O’Donnell) passing the time in a hotel room trying to not listen to Nixon on TV, Issac’s timid cousin, art student Lee (Isaiah Tanenbaum) taking it all in and transforming it into visual representation, brothers Bobby (Jason Paradine) and Barry (Matthew Archambault) having a better than average catch, since Barry’s good enough to turn pro, and finally, siblings George (Michael Davis) and Martha (Raushanah Simmons) driving cross country. They’re all on the brink — of change, of new horizons, of hope, of hopelessness, of boredom, of discovery — but whatever drives them, they’re eager to get to the next phase. We can see the idealism in some, the despair in others, and there isn’t a character who doesn’t speak to a part of our own ids and egos and make us say “yes … I’ve been there“.
Soon enough the “ah-ha” moments start; for each person it’s different and despite the fact that all the characters are realated to each other or joined through fate or friendship, proximity does little to spin them off in the same direction. In fact, they each get spun off in very different directions. Some find their answer in politics, civic affairs and leadership. Others find their answer in art, drugs, sex and music. They experiment, both with their faith as well as their ideas, their sexuality, and their limits. Over a backdrop of events like the dawning of The Age of Aquarius, the inauguration and subsequent assassination of JFK as well as RFK, the Vietnam war, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the poetry of Ginsberg and Pulitzer Prize winner Louis Simpson, as well as the more mainstream and musical rhymes of the Beatles, The Doors and The Beach Boys … amid acid trips and riots, Black Panthers and Woodstock, and culminating with the landing on the moon these ten lives have ten journeys that are deeply personal, yet strikingly universal. To favor one story over another is almost impossible, so interwoven are they, and so necessary to each other’s progression. But without a doubt some of my personal favorite moments lay with the character of Martha (Raushanah Simmons) who starts off as a “good christian woman” who blanches at her brother George’s use of “cuss words” and “sex talk” and moves slowly through stages of trauma, submission and grief to emerge fiercely from the other side, a strong Black Panther who still does the Lord’s work, but with a different fire in her soul. Schulenburg’s script allows everyone to have their shining moment, and touching scenes of quiet beauty are sprinkled throughout this story like stars. At different moments I found my heart breaking, at other times – exalting. And during the rest I simply reveled in the birth of change.
With amazing sound design by Asa Wember who gives life to every hiss and pop as the invisible needle hits the non-existent record and Laren Parrish’s lighting design that transforms the stage into 47 different places, Ms. Cohen’s direction is able to sparkle amid nothing more than a few chairs, tables, and benches.
To be too young to remember the sixties is unfortunate. But to miss August Schulenburg’s The Lesser Seductions of History – which brings it to life again – would be a shame. So go and be part of history. You’ve got a part in this too … and as Candice Holdorf’s narrator would point out … doesn’t it feel good to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself?
–The Lesser Seductions of History November 6 – 22 Wednesdays – Sundays @ 7:30 The Cherry Pit 155 Bank Street New York, NY 10014 A/C/E to 14th St, L to 8th Av, 1 to Christopher Please note early curtain time – 7:30pm