Once upon a time, there was a lonely critic. Never mind where he lived, nor care whether he was tall or handsome, though he certainly was not rich. One day, this lonely critic went to see Gregory Moss’ play The Uses of Enchantment as part of the Source Theatre’s annual festival.
All the critic asked of the production is that it carry him to the other side of the stream. Moss, director Amber Jackson, and the cast, seeing that the critic’s boat was stuck aground, gallantly baled water from the stream and threw it under his keel, but to no avail. Then they took giant rocks downstream and stopped the little stream, hoping the water would rise, but it wasn’t enough. Then they tied ropes around the prow, and tried with all their sinews to drag the little boat into the water, but as much as they tried, they could not float the poor critic’s boat.
This is not the end. No bedtime story is complete unless followed by a detailed explanation afterwards, so let me begin. The Uses of Enchantment, not without appeal, seems to be a play that does the hard things easy, yet struggles to do the easy things.
The play has an ambitious plot that stays reasonably on-task. Audiences will not leave wondering what they saw. But there’s more to good storytelling than that. Audiences can understand, but not feel this story.
Years ago, when I used to give public readings, I could tell instantly whether my audience was engaged or not. If coffeehouse patrons continued reading their newspapers, you weren’t connecting. If they were engaging in private conversation amongst themselves—forget about it. But if they were turned sideways, away from their coffee, staring at you, you had them.
Near the middle of the play, I glanced over the crowd, and could see they were not engaged. I will not rub it in by explaining what this detachment sometimes consisted of; regardless the audience seemed more like witnesses than enthusiastic spectators. Things got better during the later scenes as the story reached its heady conclusion, but the show should be able to hold the audience from the opening.
Brittany Martz stars as teenaged Jenny Stone, a mildly clichéd loner facing a rather familiar set of problems. On her first day of school in a new town, Jenny is late for class, where she meets the standard set of characters. First she is ridiculed by a trio of impertinent “mean girls” (Mia Branco, Shayna Blass, Amy Wilson), then she confronts the over absorbed Professor Shipp (Phil Dickerson) whose lesson plan on fairy tales is seemingly below Jenny’s maturity and intellect. Finally she is oddly befriended by Froggy (Alex Vaughan), an outcast, who seems engrossed by Shipp’s lessons.
Jenny’s disaffection extends to her home life, as she and her father (Mark Ludwig) adjust to life in a new town, following a sudden breakup of the father’s marriage. Behind all of Jenny’s torment is a tragic event that her family cannot get past.
What Shipp’s lessons on fairy tales reminds us is that fairy tales are not there to show us that a better world exists. Quite the contrary, fairy tales so often are full of grief. Fairy tales can often give us a chance to confront our personal grief.
Whether asleep, or in an intense daydream, Jenny finds herself living out fairy tales of her own making. This is not to say she becomes Little Red Riding Hood, but instead we see interesting new tales that have explicit connections with her personal experience. Tales such as: the ugly giant who wears a box on his head, or the sister who could not warn her brother not to drink from a magical stream.The fantasy scenes take up less than half the play’s runtime, but are the clear highlight of this show.
Jackson and the rest of the crew put together quite a functional set with translucent screens and backlighting. Hidden characters will appear menacing, as shadows; acts of “fantasy violence” are portrayed in gruesome detail, and the play gets rather intense near the end as Jenny finally confronts the malevolent forces that are haunting her in both fantasy and reality.
Jackson is quite capable at building intensity. She may be still better at dramatic poignancy. For myself, the best moment as the play is a quiet moment between Jenny and Froggy, where Jenny reveals to her friend (and the audience) the harrowing incident that has ripped apart her life.
Did you ever share with a close friend some Incident that scares you to talk about? I have a feeling Jackson and Martz have. This scene is what it is about. The long pauses, deep breaths, clumsy attempts at humor; this is fear, dread. Actor and director boldly, skillfully push their way through a difficult scene.
The rest of the play falls flat, however. In particular, I feel that Jackson paces much of the play too slowly. But there was little else other than what I praised above to hold my interest. The classroom scenes often seem like they are taken from an afternoon teen drama, and add little to the story. The confrontations between Jenny and the “mean girls” really were not necessary, nor were many of the melodramatic scenes between Jenny and father.
This play does some things quite well, but unfortunately, the whole suffers because it tries to do too many things entirely.
Uses of Enchantment
By Gregory Moss
Produced by CulturalDC
Directed by Amber Jackson
Running time: 2 hours with no intermission