Friday, December 4, 2015

Review: A Theatrical True Detective

We all love playing detective. Solving a mystery can be fulfilling. That's why television and film is filled with cop shows. In Lizzie Vieh's Barrier Islands, when a body is discovered in the sand, a string of seven more are uncovered leading to a hunt to find the murderer.
With two actors playing three characters each, Barrier Islands is a theatrical answer to "True Detective." Which season? That’s up to you. Played in an intricate nonlinear format, the lives of six key players are intertwined in a clue-unraveling mystery. What's enthralling about Vieh's play is the character study that is unveiled. With the drama surrounding the situation, Vieh is still capable of crafting characters that don't just serve the story. Each character is flawed or damaged, some more than others, and we watch their journey with the mystery as a backdrop. Where Barrier Islands struggled was the pacing. Like "True Detective", you want the audience to be able to take in and savor the moments but if it's all played at the same tempo, the more intimate beats will lose severity. And that happened, especially in the middle portion of the piece. Regardless, the play is a writing triumph. The story is captivated and keeps you interested in the result, though it's likely you'll have an inkling of who may have done it. We watch each male and female pair with one another, offering a unique perspective in storytelling. Truths and secrets can only be revealed through certain pairings so discovering the facts meant keeping a keen eye in the pairs. That is if you could keep all the characters straight.
Two actor plays may be perceived as easy but Barrier Islands is anything but. This is not an easy play. Director Zi Alikhan was thrown challenge after challenge. For the most part, Alikhan found solutions. The playing space at The Wild Project is normally a decent size but with Andrew Diaz's multi-location set, isolation was hard. That meant lighting designer Jessica Creager was an integral member of the team. A great deal of attention was paid when it came to lighting Barrier Islands. This design was important to storytelling. The tightness of the staging led to interesting stage pictures with cool lighting looks but nothing is sadder than shadows falling across faces and actors walking out of light. With the circumstances what they were, Creager did a fine job. With the duo switching characters from scene to scene, Alikhan needed to establish a transition vocabulary. Chalk it up to preference but highlighting costume changes feels voyeuristic. Perhaps a more stylized change would alleviate the awkwardness.
Aleisha Force and Russell Jonas established an immense amount of trust that helped to elevate the production. Had they not had a good stage relationship it might have been best to burry the play in the sand. Chemistry aside, Force and Jonas needed to create distinct characters that were different and easily recognizable. Jonas seemed to capitalize on this a bit better. Force’s trio were quite similar, with the exception of imperfect cop, her greatest deviation. Force crafted three strong, grounded women, adopting physicality as a key player in her three. Jonas, on the other hand, played more into character. While Force went for vocal gruffness, Jonas played with pitch a bit more. Jonas’ characters felt theatrical, but in this type of storytelling, it was necessary.
Barrier Islands is an incredible feat to produce. There’s nothing easy about it. Vieh’s script was strong with Alikhan’s execution almost there. In the next iteration, which is bound to happen, perhaps a little bit of reimagining will help.