Coping will emotionally devastate you in all the best ways. It takes a rare production to reach deep into your chest and punch you repeatedly in your emotions, lift you up with laughter, then proceed to smack you around some more.
With a beautifully crafted script, poignant direction, fully embodied acting, and and really smart design, Green Spark has brought together something truly gut rending. Normally a studious note taker, I found I was unable to tear my eyes from the production.
Director Joshua W. Kelley has taken all of the ingredients for a well-crafted show and served up an exquisite cocktail of grief, suffering, and healing. Kelley makes sure that the show is lean, with every moment brimming with information, and ensuring that every beat has just the right weight. With just the right final touches and razor-sharp attention to detail, he guarantees each moment has precisely the impact required to really make this show dazzle. Well. Dazzle sadly.
We enter a world of compartmentalization and packing, with the rather fascinating choice to design the set almost entirely with tupperware, which proved to be both an interesting physical image as well as a nice practical choice. Audrey Bodek’s simple design choices do not hinder the complexity of the story, but rather serve to set an effective framework for the maelstrom in the space. Daniel Mori and Kris Thompson have worked together to work within the rather simple confines of the Mead Theater Lab to harness the power of lights to their fullest. The Sound Design by Jordana Abrenica punctuates the space, working with the text to stab us with painful reminders of our deepest fears or memories.
The show itself begins before curtain (it’s worth your time to get there 15 minutes before curtain. Trust me). We meet Sarah (Rebecca Ballinger), who seems to be anxiously working with chalk, while a Stage Manager (Madelyn Farris, not to be confused with production Stage Manager, Patrick Gallagher Landes), gives her (and us) a countdown to the show’s beginning in the traditional theatrical increments.
by Jacob Marx Rice
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The show opens with an absolutely chilling series of voicemails, all concerning the suicide of a young man named Connor Evans. We then encounter the icy sister Jessica (Melissa Hmelnicky), and the chill roommate, Lucas (Danny Rovin), both sorting through the belongings of the deceased Connor Evans. Sarah, Connor’s girlfriend, enters the scene with snacks, quickly revealing her OCD under a verbal barrage from Jessica. Shortly thereafter, we meet Taylor (Maggie Robertson), and begin the descent into the roiling emotional cyclone of grief. Later on, we meet Janie (Michelle Hill), a funeral director who has been retained to run the funeral and memorial.
The plot itself is both small, in that the play itself is little more than a series of conversations, but monumental in the insight into the lives of the people we meet on the stage. With one startling theatrical technique that manages to serve as a living metaphor for a coping mechanism, it’s all we need to begin to peer into the humanity of these strangers.
Sarah is a full-fledged wreck. Played with outstanding commitment and specificity by Rebecca Ballinger, who sheds light on the mind and soul of someone with OCD and who now deals with the grief of losing a loved one.
Her main antagonist, the vicious Jessica, is played with a chilling and sharp intensity by the fabulous Melissa Hmelnicky. Danny Rovin, as the roommate Lucas, manages to balance zany antics and a love of Taylor Swift against soul-rending sincerity. Maggie Robertson’s Taylor is expertly shaped by barely contained rage, frustration, and hopelessness, held together in a package of laughter and uncertainty. The ever present Stage Manager is played with a simple kindness and authority by Madlyn Farris. Lastly, in brief but memorable moments, Michelle Hill gives us Janie, the funeral director, who even under the polished veneer of funerary professionalism manages to give us the most lovely glimpses into the human being behind the profession. Each and every actor deftly manages the space between facade and vulnerability. Under the guidance of Kelley, they somehow not only embody the stages of grief, but meld them into a more modern, more down to earth form. Simultaneously, they almost appear to be tied to the capital sins, which simultaneously makes their grief ground and real, but transcended to something divine.
The actors engage in an elegant tango of coping mechanisms and grief, while giving us a package that is entirely too, too human. As a result, this is perhaps one of the strongest acting ensembles I have ever seen on a Fringe stage. Attacking each moment with emotional crispness and fearlessly diving into the mire that is grief, this ensemble left me crushed and uncomfortable in just the best way.
Kudos to the show for also casting Lesbian and Bisexual women in a truly genuine light. Absolute praise must be given for the humanization of these otherwise poorly represented identities in theatre. Here, in Coping, they are given no pedestal, nor are they demonized or reduced to the singular trait of “other”. There is also something to be said about the delicate yet somehow ferocious way the show attacks the usually invisible mental illness. Coping manages to not only present the people in a multi-faceted way, but also the mental illness that come with them. Nothing is heavy handed, multiple opinions and viewpoints on depression, OCD, and PTSD clash violently throughout the space, leaving us with a beautiful prismatic view into the lives of those who carry them.
Friends, this is a show not to be missed. Green Spark Production’s presentation of Coping brings us timely themes and wonderfully realized and multidimensional characters performed with aplomb by a dynamite cast, honed by thoughtful and earnest design elements, and sewn together by a very talented director. In turn, all you should do is bring yourself to the Flashpoint, and bring some tissues.
Coping by Jacob Marx Rice . Director: Joshua W. Kelley . Cast: Rebecca Ballinger, Madelyn Farris, Michelle Hill, Melissa Hmelnicky, Maggie Robertson, Danny Rovin . Scenic & Props Designer: Audrey Bodek . Costumes: Daniel Mori and Shelby Gable . Lights: Daniel Mori and Kris Thompson . Producer: Amanda Nelson . Graphic Designer: Sarah Weitzman . Production Stage Manager: Patrick Gallagher Landes . Produced by Green Spark Productions . Reviewed by Jon Jon Johnson.