Stay is a story in performance featuring theatre, dance, music and SLAM multimedia. The premiere production of this collaboration, conceived by Playwright/Director Heather McDonald and Choreographer Susan Shields, was developed in workshop by Theater of the First Amendment, and it has all the markings of an interesting experiment of form realized through beautiful stage pictures.
McDonald and Shields have brought together some fantastic talent in this adventure, and the process may have been wonderfully bonding. Most of the performers work comfortably together. Actors Naomi Jacobson, John Lescault, Michael Willis, Andrew Hawkins, Carolyn Swift, James Whalen, and Theo Chick or Garret Christian join an ensemble of dancers to bring this piece to life. Actors become dancers (well) and at times singers (sort of); dancers take on words and memorable character portrayals. All plunge into moments of heavy psychological release.
Scenic Designer James Kronzer has created a set of sand and stone that seems at the world’s edge. He is partnered by Colin K. Bills’ lighting design to realize a stunning visual metaphor for the themes of fluidity of thoughts and emotions and the impermanence of relationships and even life itself.
Joining them, Gregory Cane has developed Slide Animation Movies(SLAM) which are projected on a huge screen across the stage. Together, the visuals are mesmerizing, and on opening night I sometimes lost any sense of where earth became water became sky. Mathew M. Nielson’s soundscape, while overly loud at times, adds to the watery atmosphere of the show.
The most successful moments in performance are realized by the dancers. Dance seems to suit the metaphysical ambitions of the creators’ ideas. The four major dancers are Aaron Ingley, Kalynn Marin, Scott Rink, and Laura Ugellés. Choreographer Shields has integrated movement, not only to help shift moods of the scenes but to embody and freeze frame life’s incandescent moments like Joy and Grace.
Bodies swirl, join, and then swirl away from each other, moving like sea creatures with the tides. All four members of this quartet are lovely, and Kalynn Marin is exceptional. When Marin shifts from tumbleweed lightness into dark pathology, she holds nothing back. I credit both Shields and McDonald for giving her the support and freedom to explore such rawness in movement. She finds a new physical language of dance to express the pain, loss and rage of her character Shimara. It is the most stunning emotional moment of the evening.
The ideas McDonald and Shields play with are fascinating. Time and memories shift. Relationships come and go. People struggle with loss and try to find healing and redemption. The props on stage are loaded symbolically. An empty suitcase lies open only to reveal it is filled with water to cleanse and purify. Stones are gathered as shrines. The nautilus shell, with its ever evolving home, is passed from one character to another. But too often there is a heaviness and redundancy in the use of these symbols. The nautilus shell has its story. The story is rehashed, the shell is taken up and talked about again, then shown in projection, just in case you didn’t get it.
The problem lies in the challenges that her subjects – loss and healing from loss – have given McDonald and are still not solved in the script. There is a lot of talking at the audience in new age preach-speak. Fragments brought into workshop still sound like fragments. When dialogue comes, even for veterans like Jacobson, Lescault, and Willis, there is sometimes a self-conscious stiltedness in the rhythms. There is a lot of generalized coming together in stage action, with couples repeatedly placing arms around each other in a kind of caramel-sweet stasis.
To combat the stasis, actor Carolyn Swift comes at the script’s weaknesses by clumping around the stage and at times pushing generalized emotional colors. Others try to serve the work by underplaying their roles. This gets harder as the evening draws on when almost everyone gets thrown into the equivalent of a therapy circle where they have to do primal scream release.
The key to the problem may be that the creators felt hamstrung by their attachment to the commission. By this I mean underwriting by The Center for Consciousness and Transformation may have tipped the scales so that the creators were encouraged to explore more ritual and therapy than drama. Forms like sacred dance, confrontational and primal therapy, and twelve-step programs are more for the participants than they are for any observers.
There are those who would argue that actual drama focuses too much on negative characters and conflict. While I might agree we need more healing in the world and more positive energy, I think the Greek dramatists got it right when they plied their trade to achieve a tight arc based on dramatic conflict, which in turn moved their audiences into a cathartic experience. McDonald and Shields may prove me wrong in the next iteration of Stay, but they haven’t yet.
Nonetheless, audiences who love dance and an honest experiment in cross-disciplinary forms should check this out and come on line to dialogue. Artists like McDonald and Shields are doing work that attempts to push the boundaries of form and content for theatre in this new century. They and their ensemble should be commended for their efforts.
Written and Directed by Heather McDonald
Choreographed by Susan Shields
Produced by Theater of the First Amendment
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission