nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 9, 2005
What do sad people have in common?
They have all built a shrine
To the past
And often go there
And do a strange wail and worship.
What is the beginning of happiness?
It is to stop being so religious
- Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)
The poem above encapsulates perfectly what Jamie Carmichael's play Pilgrims is about. Carmichael has chosen—ill-advisedly, I'd argue—to end his play with it, and its beautiful simplicity undermines his work considerably.
Carmichael and his collaborators on this ambitious project are all relative newcomers to the theatre. So I think it's important for me to say up-front that there's talent and promise on display here: Carmichael can write, director Geordie Broadwater understands how to make compelling stage pictures and how to pace a difficult play, and actresses Emily Young and especially Catherine Gowl are able to create interesting, three-dimensional characterizations. But Pilgrims does not showcase these artists in a useful way, except in terms of their potential. It's an awkward, over-reaching piece, too full of ideas and techniques and artifices for its own good, and ultimately adding up to 75 minutes or so of self-conscious theatrics that, once summed up neatly in Hafiz's brilliantly concise verse, feels redundant and unnecessary. Hafiz has already said this: Carmichael and his collaborators need to find something of their own to say.
Pilgrims is about a young man named Alvie who enrolls in an expensive urban university where his one friend is Lauren, a free-spirited young woman who moves easily between the world of her monied, snobbish friends and his own, which is modest financially but richer intellectually. Lauren's older brother, Serge, works as a sort of spiritual counselor, using techniques from yoga to supplement his (undegreed) psychology practice. A woman, Tamara, comes to Serge to help work out issues following the death of her brother; they begin a relationship. When Lauren suddenly disappears, Serge and Tamara and Alvie come together to search for her.
Carmichael's idea here is that all four of these young people are "pilgrims"—searching for connection, or wholeness, or some kind of actualization that will negate their feelings of incompleteness and sadness. (To steal from Hafiz, they are stuck in their religions, and working on paths away from them, toward happiness.)
Carmichael even sets his play around Thanksgiving to make sure that we understand the nature of his eponymous characters.
The journeys these four make are interesting, but not particularly plausible. How exactly does Serge earn his living, and why hasn't he been arrested for fraud? Why does Tamara, who seems to have a good head on her shoulders, trust Serge? What's up between Serge and Lauren? Who is Alvie and how does he know Lauren anyhow? Carmichael feeds details to his audience very sketchily, and what he gives us doesn't always make sense. Nevertheless, he's skillful enough to make his characters into people we actually start to care about, and as we come to understand the bonds that they share and the paths toward fulfillment that lay ahead for them, he comes close to moving us.
But his writerly touch is everywhere in this play, and it ultimately damages the work badly. Everything, from the characters' names (Serge? Alvie?) to the studied air of mystery shrouding each dramatic disclosure, feels forced and imposed by a playwright stretching his muscles without restraint. Carmichael has the actors who portray his four leading characters also play everyone else in their lives, changing costumes and attitudes in full view of the audience: why? He has his characters break the fourth wall to introduce the play's "parts" and, inconsistently, confide in us about this or that ("Part 4" is the last line of the play; Carmichael likes to mess with us like that)—why? I was conscious throughout Pilgrims of an author audaciously and unabashedly trying lots of new things. That's a great way to learn how to write; but it doesn't necessarily produce a work that's ready to be put in front of an audience.
Broadwater's contributions seem similarly mired in academics and technique. The actors cope as best they can with the demands placed upon them—bringing well over a dozen characters to life, making changes in full view of the audience (some of which are mechanically difficult and slow things down badly), and trying to ensure that the play's elliptical main storylines are reasonably clear. Eric Murdoch (Serge) is unfortunately unequipped to manage all of this: his expressionless line readings consistently pegged him as someone in well over his head here. Gowl (Tamara), Young (Lauren), and, to a lesser degree, Rufus Tureen (Alvie), fare better.
Finally, the production feels like a workshop or classroom study more than a finished product. Let's hope that the artists involved with Pilgrims learn a lot from the work they're doing here.