nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
August 16, 2008
August Schulenburg's Other Bodies is a superb piece of theatre. One could say it is one of the most intelligent and perceptive works to have taken the indie theater stage this year, and that would still not be doing the play justice. The script examines an everyman's life in its core elements, breaks them apart, pieces them together, and just as they are about to make sense, an unexpected force shatters them worse than before. This process happens three times over.
Other Bodies begins as Terry (Vince Nappo), a successful advertising executive and notorious player, pursues his mysterious new boss (Christina Shipp). Schulenburg humorously shows his audience how adept his protagonist has become at getting what he wants from women—whether it is to go to bed with him or to buy his company's latest product. When Terry and his boss have a "friendly drink" to discuss their latest client, he calculates what topic will spark her interest. He guides the conversation, at one point even turning to the audience and saying, "Wait for it. . . wait for it. . ." before delivering the line that wins her undivided attention.
Indeed throughout the play, Terry seamlessly transitions from speaking to another character to speaking to the audience. At times, he even "steps outside" of himself to watch the action as it occurs. This device works exceptionally well during the turning point of the play—the first moment his world shatters apart.
Terry brings his boss home following a long night of drinking. After obsessing over her for weeks, simply going to bed will no longer suffice. He demands to know the secret behind her mysterious demeanor, and when she will not confess to him he grows violent. He steps outside himself and witnesses the force with which he punishes her. He later races home and blacks out. The next morning, he awakes changed into a woman's body.
This takes us approximately 20 minutes into Other Bodies, and suffice to say that by the end of the evening, this full-length play has taken more twists and turns than even this formidable beginning will lead you to imagine. And never once does it lose its audience.
Schulenburg's handiwork is staged impeccably by director Heather Cohn. She smartly avoids blackouts save for three pivotal moments in the show. Costume changes happen onstage (there is a costume rack upstage with shirts, hats, etc. to provide the simplest distinguishing elements for Shipp's numerous characters). Subtle shifts in lighting underscore the play's moments of emotional and physical transition.
Cohn's work with actors Nappo and Shipp is admirable. The script shifts so dramatically, over and over again, that its success rests squarely on the ability of the two-person cast to sell the audience on the message within the theatrics. For most of the show, both Nappo and Shipp play members of the opposite sex. Nappo is completely believable in this vein, and delivers a wonderfully nuanced multi-dimensional performance. Shipp plays a multitude of male roles, often shifting personalities from line to line, and pays utmost attention to distinguishing them from one another. This is an extremely talented cast, and Cohn uses them well in crafting the story. Nappo breaks the audience's heart several times over, and guides us through the play's twists and turns. Alternatively, we do not identify with Shipp; rather, she is forever the catalyst. Time and time again, she shatters and rebuilds the world around us. Nappo is the mirror, and Shipp is the hammer that breaks it. Both are integral to telling Schulenburg's story; I could not imagine a better pair for the text.
This play could have easily been defined by its own premise—the transformation from one body to another. It could have been caught within its own theoretical exploration of the human condition. Either of these paths would have resulted in losing some of its audience. However, Schulenburg's play never strays from the essential human need of its characters to be understood and to understand the world around them. By framing the story in this context, he is able to keep his audience invested, no matter how complex it gets.
I sincerely hope that this play receives an extended run. It is too good to end after only five performances.