Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Review: The Power of Consequences

Every now and then you find that piece of theater that, on paper, has all the elements that give it great potential. A topical story. Contemporary characters. Themes that society wants to talk about. But bringing them together in a strong and cohesive manner is the trick. Such is the case in Sarah M. Duncan's Come Back Up. The elements are there but the product is just missing that something.
Come Back Up is an intricate story that uses the events of a recent community tragedy as the backdrop for a relationship driven saga. Coming home for her brother's wedding, Clara finds herself back at her ex wife Letta’s house. After stumbling across evidence that Buddy, the son they had together, may be involved in the tragic death of two young girls, Letta relies on Clara to hide the truth and save her son. The way that Duncan sets up her story is smart. She keeps you engaged as she slowly reveals the mystery and truth. Nearly everything she initially addresses, you get an answer to. Whether or not the answers are viable, that's the struggle. Where there is substance, Duncan still runs into problems. There are many contrived elements that could use some tweaking. First is new gal Jessamyn. Not only is she given some of the preachiest dialogue, she carries this insta-do-right persona that gets introduced without warning thus making her rotten. She's an unlikeable character that could use some finessing. With the character of Buddy, Duncan has developed a character of great worth. It's wonderful to see such a brilliant character that happens to be challenged. And the device of seeing his, spoiler alert, dead sister works. It makes sense for Buddy to see Hatty. But for Letta? Not so much. At least how it’s currently portrayed now. The moment sadly feels like a bad "Ghost" rip-off. There is a strong element of faith and belief naturally in this play. But Letta seeing Hatty goes a bit too far. And speaking of Letta, whether it is Duncan's intention or not, Letta comes across as a hypocrite. For eight years, she blames Clara and her family for the death of her daughter. But as irony would have it, the moment Letta turns her back is the second Buddy toils with destruction by letting Jessamyn go and journeying up to the roof. While one is believed to have happened out of malice and the other out of emotion, the parallels are present and you can’t help but wonder why Duncan would allow the ending to happen as it does. And about that ending, ambiguity is always welcome. The audience sees the struggle that Letta has in making a life or death decision for Buddy. But watching Letta allow Buddy to go through with the wings, it makes everything leading up to this point feel worthless. Did Letta do what was right? What happens next? If the goal is to feel unsettled, then Duncan has done the trick.
photo by PJ Norton
The casting of the five-piece ensemble was interesting. On one hand you had two exceptional performances. JT Tarpav as Buddy and Amber Avant as Hatty were quite a strong dynamic. Their youthful aura brought so much life to the piece. They had an instant connection. And Tarpav made Buddy genuine. On the other, you had three women who didn’t quite seem fit. While part of it may be due to number-crunching ages based on the timeline Duncan provided. But most of it was due to the lack of cohesion. Nicole Kontolefa and Taj Verley as Clara and Letta respectively lacked that spark in their chemistry. Sure, they have been estranged for eight years, but their bond and desire to fix the situation felt false. Animosity between the pair was necessary but you couldn’t help but feel Verley’s Letta was just using Clara. Verley made Letta spastic and irrational, making it hard to empathize. When it came to Amber Bogdewiecz as Jessamyn, most of Bogdewiecz’s struggle came due to the character. It’s hard when a character feels more like a device than a genuine key. And interestingly enough, Hatty, the clear device of the play, felt anything but.
It was very clear that director Jillian Robertson had a strong goal with this play. Robertson allowed this two-act drama to move swiftly, never allowing moments to linger. She used scenic designer Derek Miller’s house cut out to her advantage. While it may not have been the most accurate design, it was smart. Where Miller fell off was with his lighting design. The lighting shifts were very noticeable, which was a bit of a distraction. The piece is very cinematic, bouncing from room to room, and forced the lights to suffer. Perhaps just a cheat of a fade up and fade down would have assisted. Costume designer Anna Grigo had a very simple task in costuming this piece. And she shined with Hatty and Buddy. We know Hatty wasn’t real and yet dressing her in all white didn’t feel false. When it comes to Buddy, Grigo had a very specific t-shirt for him to wear. Buddy wants to be like Superman, a hero who can soar. And as on-point as it may seem, it was perfect.
There are an abundance of themes in this play but the strongest one is the battle of consequences. Whether we realize it in the moment, every action leads to consequences. And many of these characters can't handle the consequences. Come Back Up is filled with an abundance of potential. It just needs some work to get there. And tracking the consequences of actions and reactions will help get it there. This is not the last you’ve seen of this play.