The Archery Contest
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 3, 2009
The Archery Contest, the newest work by visionary theatre auteur John Jahnke, is all about sensual engagement. When we arrive in the theatre (the upstairs space at P.S. 122, transformed so that you won't recognize it), we see a large, surprising box where the stage ought to be; a ladder, propped against one corner, seems to climb into infinity. When the play begins, we have things to watch and look at all around: inside and outside the box; and above it, where projections, alternately of pastoral scenes and abstract profusions of color, array themselves on the interior panels of a smaller huge box suspended from the ceiling like a lampshade. And we have all manner of things to hear: music and sounds and rich, poetic, dense dialogue, oddly amplified in sustained beats that define, as much as the visuals, where we are within the mystifying story that Jahnke is telling us.
The Archery Contest concerns an American pastor named Reverend Kendrick and his wife Mercy. The Reverend has decided that he needs to take another wife (an additional one; he wants to keep Mercy); and even though his obsessions seem to lie with the beautiful young man Dory who lives near the cemetery, his candidate for marriage is Orpha, the beautiful girl who fascinates (and, we discover, lives with) Dory. The other person in the story is the Sexton, who tends the cemetery and is guardian to the two young people. As the Reverend sets about opening his marriage, Mercy sets about opening her mind. Their adventures with Dory and Orpha do not go as planned, however, and it becomes less and less clear just who is predator in this scenario and who is prey. The action culminates in the archery contest of the play's title, in which a new kind of equilibrium is apparently achieved.
Jahnke immerses us in an unfamiliar, spare, very beautiful world in which many unexpected things occur and many delightful illusions unfold. A large hollowed out white structure in the center of the space becomes an urn where people sleep; a mirrored floor becomes a stream. Jahnke seats the audience on all four sides of the playing area, which reminds us that much of this experience—again for the audience as much as for the characters in the story—is about shifting perspectives. Characters face out in opposite directions from those they are interacting with; sound volume drifts in and out without regard for distance from the source. We're meant to keep changing our point of view about what's occurring in front of us. The Reverend finds that his wooing of Orpha is being thwarted by a variety of circumstances, and as this unfolded I found myself thinking that Jahnke might be playing out some of the themes he's explored in earlier works like The Shady Maids of Haiti and Mercurius—the subtle but glaring usurpation of power by the once powerless.
The Archery Contest is performed by a cast of five, all of whom are called upon to be highly physical and entirely present throughout the piece. Richard Toth is commanding and then its opposite as the Reverend, while Hillary Spector's Mercy undergoes a counter-transformation. Carey Urban and Alexander Borinsky are at once innocent and sinister as Orpha and Dory. As the Sexton, Jeff Worden has perhaps the most demanding role, which he performs fluently.
The visual and aural elements are as important as the actors; these are contributed by Peter Ksander (the remarkable, mutable set), Kristin Worrall (the provocative soundscape), Carlos Soto (costumes, evoking some long-ago period), Miranda Hardy (lighting), and Andrew Schneider (video).
The Archery Contest—gorgeous and obtuse—bids its audience to engage in its often abstract imagery and ideas and to challenge assumptions about marriage, mores, and theatre itself.