Monday, April 17, 2017

173. Review: SAMARA (seen April 14, 2017)

“Richard Maxwell Decaffeinated"
Last year, downtown theatregoers who regularly flocked to Tribeca to see the Soho Rep do one of its avant-garde plays were devasted when the company had to leave its louche storefront venue on Walker Street. But they can thank the theatre gods that this Off-Broadway mainstay has found a brand new home, albeit way over on the Far West Side in the spiffily renovated building housing A.R.T. /New York Theatres.
The venue's bright red and white halls may, at first, seem jarring for those familiar with the company's former funkiness but, as demonstrated by Richard Maxwell’s Samara, the downtown artistic vibe has made the trip to Hell’s Kitchen. The neighborhood's innovative theatre creds have been growing rapidly; just consider the proximity of Ars Nova, Intar, EST, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Moreover, both the Irish Arts Center and MCC are building expensive new theatres nearby.

In a rare gesture, Maxwell, the well-known, iconoclastic playwright-director, has handed Samara's directorial reins over to Sarah Benson, Soho Rep’s gifted artistic director. She's given it a Maxwell-style staging, making little attempt to suggest that the play is anything but a play, or the space anything but a theatre.

As is typical in a Maxwell production, some of the acting has a flat, uninflected quality, but there's also a sharp infusion of naturalistic behavior mediated by dramatic pauses that come not single spies but in battalions. Sorry to say, though, despite Benson's many intelligent choices, this visitor didn't find Maxwell's decaffeinated play good to the last drop.
Roy Faudree. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
As part of designer Louisa Thompson’s scheme, three of the four walls of the large, rectangular Mezzanine Theatre, as the new venue is called, have been lined with black, hard-plastic, intersecting units to form two audience rows, one at floor level and one a few feet higher. The rigid, uncomfortable seating is only slightly relieved by a foam cushion you bring with you when you enter. Sensitive derrieres will be even more so after 90 minutes of Samara.
Paul Lazar, Jasper Newell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The set proper fills the floor with similar units, with two isolated platforms at either end of the rectangle; scenic props are indicated by black milk cartons resembling the larger units. In fact, the entire thing resembles a giant, Lego-like milk carton. There’s no indication of time and place, but lighting designer Matt Frey does a good job at creating atmosphere.
Jasper Newell, Paul Lazar. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
PR for Samara has made much of the presence of Steve Earle, the guitarist, singer, songwriter, writer, and actor (TV’s “The Wire” and “Treme”), whose roots music has earned him three Grammys. Earle wrote the background music, performed at one corner by percussionist Anna Wray, playing on the exposed guts of a piano with various tools, including timpani mallets, with Ivan Goff at another playing uilleann pipes and an Irish concert flute.
Jasper Newell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Only one actual song is performed, a lullaby, for which Earle also wrote the lyrics. Mostly, the music is eerie and dreamlike, unlike (to my ill-informed ears) the country or folk sounds associated with Earle’s work. At the end, in a moment incongruously at odds with what’s preceded it, we hear what sounds like Irish folk music as the cast performs a jig choreographed by Annie-B. Parsons.
Steve Earle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Earle does even more. Dressed in black jeans and polo, bespectacled and with a long, gray beard, he stands at one side and reads the stage directions in his gravelly, Tom Waits-like voice. After the main action concludes, he has several pages of vaguely poetic narrative, none of which seems immediately relevant to what’s come before; when it’s over, his amplified voice is heard as if from behind or beneath you, with yet another discrete narrative.
Paul Lazar. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Like other Maxwell plays, Samara—not any of the mostly Russian places listed by that name in Wikipedia but a fictional American town—has a fairly straightforward story, albeit with unconventional characters (only one actually named) and situations. Its dialogue combines realistic speech with heightened prose using unexpected words and images. If you're into searching for symbols and ideas, you'll probably come up with some if you dig hard enough.

The action itself usually makes superficial sense but mood is just as important as narrative here; with no characters or plot to care about, and a pace that makes paint drying seem fast, you may begin to feel like a container of curdling milk in that huge carton surrounding you.
Becca Blackwell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The play, set in what feels like a Sam Shepard-like landscape conflating frontier times with today (Junghyun Georgia Lee’s costumes are contemporary) begins when a shabby young Messenger (14-year-old Jasper Newell) demands money owed him by an older man called the Supervisor (Roy Faudree). The boy, as is his custom with older men, addresses him as “sirrah.” Rejecting the seven dollars offered, he agrees instead to track down someone who owes money to the Supervisor and thereby wipe out the Supervisor's own IOU. Meanwhile, as we’ll often be told, the rains are coming.
Vinie Burrows, Becca Blackwell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
After killing the Supervisor in a gratuitous act of violence, the Messenger ends up, after an arduous journey, somewhere “off the map” at an inn run by the Drunk (Paul Lazar) and his transgender partner, the Manan (Becca Blackwell); the pair is hiding from some transgressive past. The Messenger demands his payment from the Manan, offspring of the missing debtor, and refuses to leave until paid, seriously disturbing his hosts.
Matthew Korahais, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Vinie Burrows. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
What follows involves another death, and the encounter of the Manan and the Drunk with a gritty, Mother Courage-like old hag, Agnes (veteran Vinie Burrows, remarkably vibrant at 92), and her two sons, Cowboy (Modesto Flako Jiménez), a lariat at his waist, and Beast (Matthew Korahais), a filthy, bare-torsoed, blob of blubber. Things grow weirder, and your interest either waxes or, like mine, wanes, as we learn that Agnes is on her own quest, searching for a missing son.
Vinie Burrows, Becca Blackwell. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Eventually, the actors leave, Earle steps into the light for his big recital, his poetic chatter grows more ambiguous, darkness descends, and fog rolls in. When the fog vanishes all rejoice in that Irish jig. As for the fog in your brain, you’re on your own.


A.R.T./New York Theatres; Mezzanine Theatre
502 W. 53rd St., NYC
Through May 7