nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 24, 2011
There’s no question that Mendacity’s goal and message—providing support and understanding to survivors of sexual assault—are laudable, and the emotional core of the story it’s telling—a survivor’s journey from pre-assault through trauma to a small measure of healing—rings true. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always make it particularly compelling theatre. In trying to strike a difficult balance between a universal, archetypal portrayal of emotional states and the specific particulars of an individual character and her story, writer/director Lauren Rayner all too often seems to get stuck somewhere in between.
Stylistically, Mendacity, subtitled “A Solo Word Collage,” owes a lot to Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Like Shange, Rayner uses a kind of emotionally charged, driving poetry as her main throughline, with dips in and out of more conventional, dialogue-driven sequences. (It’s a solo piece, but at times performer Ali Kresch steps into other characters peripheral to the unnamed central figure.) At its best, the language feels like strong slam poetry, connecting on a rhythmic level as much as in its content, and really takes you inside a mind frightened by its own excesses and perseverations. At its worst, it feels like an acting exercise, an attempt to fill strings of repeated words with meaning by inflecting them differently each time. And at times, I think the striving for archetype does a disservice, flattening the character and making what she has to say seem generic, where language that was either more visceral or more metaphorical would give a stronger sense of character and a greater connection to her.
Of course, we’re watching someone go through an intensely private psychological journey, and not all of that is meant to be—or could be—comprehensible or interesting to an outsider; some of the material is about this character’s inability, anymore, to connect with others or relate to the world in anything like a normal way. It’s a tricky thing, to give an audience a way to understand and connect with or relate to a character who’s experiencing an inability to express herself emotionally or verbally. But a solo show centered around a closed-off character runs the risk of feeling like reading someone’s diary rather than being in the theatre.
I also found most of the production elements confusing rather than evocative; Jim Rayner’s set, a simple structure of metal scaffolding containing and constraining the action, is effective, but the choreography, sound design, and projections felt purely abstract, added for visual variety rather than meaning.
As the central character, Ali Kresch has a stripped-down simplicity that effectively reveals vulnerability, but her performance really connects and crackles with energy in the sections with the most concrete character and storytelling work, where she’s channeling other voices as well as the assault survivor: another member of a therapy group, a roommate. One of the most effective sections is a conversation between the main character and a boyfriend who’s breaking up with her; Kresch’s body language beautifully delineates both parties to the conversation and the subtext of it. I wish the piece had more moments with that kind of shading and layering.
Mendacity has enormous value as a conversation-starter, and I think it would resonate very differently in a more intimate, less presentational setting, where a dialogue between artists and audience could be opened up. As a straight piece of theatre, though, it falls a little short.