nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2006
There is much to admire in Phenomenon, the collaboration between director Alyse Rothman, playwright Gordon Cox, and composer Lance Horne that has just opened after several years of development at HERE. Horne's music would definitely sit at the top of my list: an ethereal, moody, evocative underscoring upon which sit a surprising set of songs, usually played on the guitar by Marshall York, that transform this piece from a routine play to a quirky sort-of musical where characters sometimes sing their inner thoughts for no other reason than that this is a very unusual day.
That, at least, is how Phenomenon seems at its beginning. It's May 17, 1980 in Southwestern Washington State, and all indications are that this will be a day like all others, as we watch the play's four characters emerge from sleep and go through their morning rituals of shaving, brushing teeth, and so on. They converge at a diner: Christine, whose mother owns the restaurant, is its reluctant proprietress and cook; Michael is her employee; Mark, a geologist, is involved in observations of nearby Mount St. Helens; and Mary, his wife, is a journalist in search of a big story and senses that her husband might just be sitting on top of one.
Then a mysterious, nameless Cowboy sidles in, with guitar but apparently little else to his name, singing. And soon Mary and Christine are singing too. A butterfly flutters nearby and Michael catches it inside one of the coffee pots; we "see" the butterfly in the form of a dancer doing ballet moves just behind the diner scene. We understand that, by any measure, this is no ordinary day.
It is, in fact, the day before the eruption, an eventuality that Mark and others have been tracking for a long time. Citizens in the area have been warned, but inadequately; a "caravan" has been organized to allow people with cabins around the lake near the mountain to clear out their possessions, but there's not the sense of urgency that hindsight tells us there should have been. The dancer turns into a seismograph at Mark's site near the volcano. There's lots of activity coarsing through her legs.
This is terrific terrain for theatre, timely in the aftermath of 9/11 and all the more so six months after Hurricane Katrina (which had not happened when Rothman conceived the piece three years ago). Even though we know how Phenomenon must climax, Rothman and Cox build suspense and interest very effectively. The geologist and his wife are having troubles in their relationship, which she attempts to rectify by following him to the (potentially very dangerous) site. Christine hates the diner and wants to run away to Seattle and become a singer; perhaps the enigmatic Cowboy is her ticket out?
And then It Happens, by which I mean Mount St. Helens erupts. And here's where Phenomenon falters, for It barely happens at all, doesn't even register. We're aware that the catastrophe has occurred and that at least one of our characters has been killed as a result, but a feeling of something bigger than any of them—a sense of a phenomenon, as the title infers—is absent. The denouement, which feels long in Cox's script, fails to supply this as well.
So I was left with a burning question: what about this event was interesting to the creators of the piece? I can imagine all kinds of resonances (and I've suggested two of them a few paragraphs above), but no leaps or connections get made here. Instead, the play caves in on itself, fretting about the fortunes of characters who, before the explosion, seem merely archetypal.
Now it occurs to me that the performance I saw, or the production that Rothman and Company have arrived it, falls short of what was planned. There's a credit for projections and animation in the program and much is made in press materials of a multimedia component, yet none of these was present in what I saw. Did stuff malfunction, or just not come to pass? [Note: A revised press release received from the show's publicist, after opening night, eliminates credits for costume design, sound design, properties, and projections and animation. - Editor]
The set designed by Michael V. Moore is spare, save the richly detailed diner; perhaps something a bit less abstract would have helped make the depiction of the eruption a less subtle experience.
As things are, I love the idea of the dancer (Becka Vargus is her name) serving as Mark's equipment; I love the songs (especially when performed by Rebecca Hart as Christine and Marshall York as the Cowboy); I love the blend of science and story in Cox's script. And York, Michael Lopez (as Michael), and especially Michael Urie (as Mark, in whom, alone among the characters, the conflict between trivial exigencies of life and massive unstoppable natural events is actually manifested) do expert, affecting work here.
But Phenomenon, despite the very evident enormous amount of time and effort expended on its development, does not achieve the transcendence that its promising concept portends, and that finally is a disappointment.