nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
March 14, 2007
There is only one chance left to see the newFangled theatReR production of Harm's Way. Cancel your plans for Saturday night (10pm), and go to the East Village to see this show.
Harm's Way is mostly the abstract story of a killer named Santouche, but it's also the story of the many people who are sooner or later caught in his path, including his lover, his friend, and the carny-like folk he meets along his journey. Playwright Mac Wellman uses a mix of heightened language and colloquialisms from different periods to give the entire play a slightly off-balance feel. "Scram" and "Hey, bud" are thoroughly mixed with "Nevertheless, I wish you well." The story is also designed to keep the audience off-balance, so that they are never quite sure of where reality stops and fantasy begins. A man who claims he is President McKinley demands that Santouche convince a "stiff" (i.e., dead guy) to bury him alive. A carnival con-man turned pimp panders with his Church of Jesus Christ, Fornicator, which is a brilliant indictment of both con-men and organized religion. Wellman's running theme of "it's all part of the show" begs us to question much of what we take for granted in human society and culture. Though perhaps not his best play, it is an entirely effective look at human interaction, motivation, relationships, and, most importantly, perception. Wellman does a marvelous job walking a fine line between absurdist and linear theatre, and this production brings out the best in his play.
It's refreshing to see performers this outstanding directed so well. johnmichael rossi's use of a very small space is surprisingly creative. His staging is visually interesting and serves both the play and the actors well. He has a clear vision for the piece and executes it to near perfection. Dance numbers and music (courtesy of a washboard, cake tin, guitar, and saxophone) evoke images that are part gypsy, part fireside hobo. They serve the play and the scene transitions extremely well, and the music and Esra Cizmeci's wonderful choreography are performed so well that the numbers are genuinely fun to watch.
The performances aren't just good, they are stunning. I was captivated for the first time in a long time. Such complete devotion to individual moments in a play and a character's reality are rare in a company so young. Most of the actors play multiple parts, and they all do a marvelous job of injecting humor into what could be an overly serious play. Megan Raye Manzi and Ashleigh Beyer are by far the most consistent actors I've seen in the last year on any stage. As Santouche's lover, Manzi's pained and tortured looks are only matched by her looks of resolve. Her moments onstage are beautiful and heart-wrenching. Beyer's unrestrained glee would turn campy for most every actor I've ever seen, yet she somehow manages to make every second of it real. Jason F. Williams is the chameleon of the bunch in this show. From the creepy, carny con-man to the hesitant friend who guards the back door, more effort would be apparent in the changing of one's socks than that which Williams displays while slipping from one character to the next. The constant urgency Seth Reich brings to Santouche is impressive, and it helps push his final scene to a very real and disturbing close. Esra Cizmeci, Justin Sturges, and Niluka Smarasekera shift seamlessly from being part of the environment of the story to vital characters within it, without ever once appearing out of place or pasted on. All of the actors do wonders with rossi's transitions, from the sly grin that spreads onto Manzi's face as a sad scene ends and the music and dancing begin, to Williams's knowing, raised eyebrow that warns of bad things to come. The actors all slip flawlessly from character to dancing vagabond and back again.
Howard Klein's costume design concept presents the actors as vagabonds in coattails, complete with patches, worn silk strands, and even a tartan rag. The style blends remarkably well with Smarasekera's props. The RIP headstones that are hidden here and there are both oddly amusing and unsettling. The umbrellas used throughout the show are the perfect choice to suggest a New Orleans funeral, lending a disconcerting celebratory feel to the murders and pain in the show. Sturges's lighting is excellent. He uses a simple plot in surprisingly subtle ways and moves the scene from roadway to rock concert and back again.
Though this is my first experience with nFt, it's clear that this production is not just a lucky success. It's easy to see the excellence present in talent of this caliber.