Flux Theatre Ensemble’s production of Menders (written by Erin Browne and directed by Heather Cohn) currently playing at The Gym at Judson will catch you by surprise – but not all at once. It will do so in subtle ways, often, and always differently than it did moments before.
First you will be drawn in by the simple aesthetics of the piece, which unfolds with a wisp of mystery but a promise of payoff in the end because, of course, that’s the way all good stories wrap up. Not necessarily with a good ending, or a bad ending, but a powerful ending which simply means one interlude has come to its natural conclusion. Director Heather Cohn understands how to build the perfect scaffolding around this story, which is a story of stories — each story within it also coming to not a good ending, or a bad ending … simply a powerful one.
Next you will be moved by the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost which is recited in part by each character in kind as they move about the stage and gather items, disappearing and reappearing from behind several substantial walls that dominate the set (beautifully and cleanly designed by Cory Rodriguez). You’ll know what they’re reciting if you’ve read your program cover ahead of time — if not, it will come up soon enough and the elegance with which the symbolism is used is exquisite; each time lines from the verse are repeated they catch your ear differently, each iteration vibrating with a deeper meaning of what it means to keep people out, or in, or know precisely which it is that is being done. I’m sure those who have already seen the show were quick (as I was) to sit with the poem and see it through fresh eyes.
Subsequently you will be captivated by the non-linear story telling, woven so perfectly by playwright Erin Browne, who has a talent for creating not abrupt scene changes nor cheap cliff hangers, but rather recuperative moments of contemplation between stories so that each journey has the necessary amount of time to settle with -and permeate through- the audience.
And ultimately you will be gripped by the strong performances of the actors who so deftly lay this story out to the audience in a way that has your heart beating along with theirs – in love, in fear, in sadness, in freedom, in hope … in despair.
Menders is a story about stories – real stories that have hidden gems of magic, magical stories that have heartbreaking elements of reality – all wrapped up in the bigger story of what it means to follow your heart versus follow the rules and the consequences of doing either.
The play begins in a society not so different from — and yet completely different than — ours. Some might say it is where we could be heading if we’re not careful. It’s either a utopia or a dystopia, based on who you ask, but either way it’s a country that’s walled in, safe … patrolled by Menders. Their job is to walk the wall and report any breaks or suspicious tracks. After that their report goes to the Investigators who follow up and the Crew who do the actual mending. When we first meet a Mender, Corey, (Sol Marina Crespo) she is pleading to an unseen panel of judges; she is broken … yet still believing in the cause, still true to her country. She is patriotic, even as she has no idea why she is being held or questioned; still true to the system of government that she knows is ultimately right regardless of how wrongly she is being treated.
A quick turn and time spins backwards; it is much earlier and Corey is in training, all energy and eagerness. It’s the first day and she’s with her cousin Aimes (Isaiah Tanenbaum) who is also eager, but far more nervous about their new mission. They are greeted by Drew (Matt Archambault), their trainer who – it seems – is on his last tour as he is about to pack it in for a desk job. He blames the wear and tear all the walking has done to his feet, but subtle clues hint that there’s a deeper reason here.
Soon the patrolling starts and it turns out to be surprisingly … dull. To pass the time Drew tells stories to Corey and Aimes … stories that were “something someone told him once” but Corey surmises “…it was stuff he’d learned as an Investigator – outside the Wall.” One story is about a gentle, lonely farmer, Jeff (Mike Mihm) who finds a woman in his wheat-field one day – a woman, Lila (Vivia Font) who got there by the power of her own wings – beautiful, shimmering structures that are part of her and have brought her to him. So entranced is he by her captivating beauty that he does whatever he can to ensure that she never leaves him – even the worst thing he could possibly do to her. His actions wind up keeping her in a type of prison, by his side but refusing to speak to him. The story of Jeff and Lila is Aimes’ favorite.
The second story, also metered out in small parcels, is about a subway troubadour, Ash (Raushanah Simmons) who comes upon a woman one day, Tam (Ingrid Nordstrom), who never goes above ground during the day because she’s allergic to sunlight. Ash, like Jeff in his story, is similarly captivated by this woman and boldly takes steps to win her over. Tam, fragile, skittish, nervous, is not easily won. Ash even goes so far as to gift Tam with a star she found in the park. Eventually the two women come to some middle ground and the future looks bright. This story is Corey’s favorite despite the fact that “every fiber of her being” knows that two women together in a “man/woman” way is wrong. Like Aimes, she waits out the duller stories until “her” story is told by Drew.
In between telling these stories the action reverts back to the present day, where Corey is still defending herself in an unexplained arena. She will often go on to explain more of the early days of training.
Criss-crossing through all these interlinked stories – some fabricated (or so we’re told), some re-envisioned, is the main theme of Menders: that every character there is a mender of one sort or another, for every one of them is broken somehow and needs to be repaired in a way that requires attention, love, respect, and diligence. Each of their stories – presented to the audience as either fiction or true account – illustrates that every one of us can be simultaneously broken and fixed — and a mender — which is perhaps why, in the end, there is no actual resolution to any of the stories – not even Corey’s. She has been on trial for most of it, but perhaps her biggest accuser has been herself; and her biggest entreaty is not on her own behalf but on the behalf of all the broken – for all to be spared and given understanding. Although, perhaps, even she doesn’t know that.
Once again, Flux shows an expertise at assembling incredible actors to bring their productions to life; the team of menders (Archambault, Crespo and Tanenbaum) are the solid core of the piece with Ms. Crespo, as Corey, serving as the pinion that keeps the other stories in play. She has the most difficult role, needing to convincingly portray fresh-faced and earnest one moment before becoming broken and discouraged the next; confused by the way her dream crumbled. Matt Archambault (always a formidable Flux presence) as Drew is able to give a still-waters-run-deep snapshot of a man; his choices are subtle but compelling, allowing the audience to look for clues to his truth that he works hard to obscure.
Isaiah Tanenbaum (another Flux favorite) gives dimension to Aimes which elevates the character from a simple yes-man to a touching human being on the brink of discovering the power of secrets that had been heretofore hidden from him.
Vivia Font is downright beguiling as Lila – a woman who, inexplicably, has wings. She is so believable, and so invested, that her attatchment to them is never questionable. Moreover, as her character goes speechless for part of her scenes she does a beautiful job of emoting from a much deeper place; so fully expressing Lila’s pain, doubt, and regret with little more than a twitch of her mouth and a downcast eye. For his part Mike Mihm is able to make Jeff endearing when all outward signs would have you dislike him for his thoughtless actions, and in the end when he pays the ultimate price he breaks your heart as he bears silent witness to his punishment.
Raushanah Simmons as Ash and Ingrid Nordstrom as Tam prove to be the perfect yin/yang pair; where Ash is strong, forthright, determined, bold, and even a bit mischievious, Tam is anxious, unsure, quiet … yet curious. Simmons and Nordstrom are a joy to watch as they peel back the layers of this tentative relationship, dancing a dance with awkward but insistent steps. They not only have a terrific chemistry, but an estimable knack for getting you to root for their relationship to succeed.
When speaking with Artistic Director August Schulenburg a few weeks before seeing the show he advised “Menders is very ‘Flux’y”. I love that Flux Theatre has so strongly identified their brand that a play immediately resonates as “Fluxy”. And I love that the minute he said that to me I already had a notion of what to expect – and was excited about it. Now that I’ve seen it not only do I agree – Fluxy! – but I’m once again awed by the talented ensemble that is Flux. Simply put: this is a beautiful story – told beautifully. Let it surprise and delight you … and perhaps even mend you too.
~~~Menders by Erin Browne directed by Heather Cohn The Gym at Judson 243 Thompson Street, NYC 10012 Jan 21 – Feb 11 Click Here to Purchase Tickets