Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Grief Heals If It Doesn't Kill You

By Ed Malin

Grief may push us out of our comfort zone, or intensify our inertia, or make us feel that life is even more meaningless, or drive us to drink, or allow us to see new connections in the universe.  Yes, and.
Go Get The Axe is the first full-length play offering from FIG Productions (whose name stands for "Fear Is Good”).  Over the past year and a half, James L. Menzies wrote the play, an expansion of several shorter pieces created through the vibrant downtown company Amios’s  monthly Shotz! productions.  Director Richard C. Aven guides the cast of 12 through their non-linear, perhaps therapeutically circular, adventure in many modes of being.  I learned a lot about the genesis of the piece through a recently-posted podcast from several of the creative leads.
I also learned that the title of the piece references a well-known folk song with whimsically random lyrics.  But, sometimes, don’t seemingly unrelated things, even loss of loved ones, bring people together?  At the top of the show, a member of the Drinkwine family sees several unidentified persons wearing white hospital gowns walking around a room, next to a sliding door.  When the door opens, we see a huge ascending staircase and a neon sign which proclaims “Parly Gates”.  From this  tantalizing bit of information, we jump between the lives of several Drinkwine siblings, who may be estranged from each other or have their own troubles, all for good, realistic reasons, which we may gradually discover from context.  Despite the David Lynch-like jumps between stories, and priceless dream statements to the effect that playwright David Mamet wrote a script for “Back to the Future” but it wasn’t as good (as the one we know in this world), the dialogue comes off as quite realistic.  If someone knows what they’re talking about, they don’t spend time on exposition.  You have to beat it out of them.  We do see some characters explaining their behavior, such as Tommy Tanner (Jay Ben Markson) a student being punished for a violent outburst, or Maeve Drinkwine (Lisa Kitchens) an unkempt employee called to the boss’s office to be terminated.  In turn, we see the boss, Strother Van Allen (Terrence Montgomery), reveal that his worldly success has made him more sad than anything else.  Consciousness of absurdity helps these characters open up.  Drew Nungesser’s sound design includes lively soul music (pun intended?) that gives us some knowledge of the characters’  mental states.
photo by Richard C. Aven
Doctor Martin Gaskins (Robert Robinson) who is Tommy’s French teacher, realizes that Tommy is dealing with the loss of someone close to him.  However, when Tommy hurls a racial epithet at his teacher and further insults the memory of the teacher’s deceased son, Martin smashes some office furniture with a baseball bat.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen onstage.  It was preceded by a polite conversation in French (with English supertitles) which was delivered in hostile tones.
Jessica Drinkwine (Leigh Williams) calls her brother Jim (Christopher Halladay) to tell him that his baby sister has died.  Jessica leaves multiple voice mails for her estranged brother, who blames Jessica for the death of their mother, Susan.  Ian Friedman’s video design fills in some of the chronology such as Jerry Tanner’s (Michael Propster), who is Tommy’s father, beautiful courtship, marriage and loss.   In the present, Jerry is not able to say much more than “do you have anything to declare?”
It seems that Jessica is connected to Strother Van Allen, her sister Maeve’s employer.  Archie Windows (Eric Michael Gillett) approaches Jessica in a bar and reveals that he knows quite a lot about her.  Such happenings help move the play back to Tommy Tanner and a comet which he has claimed is coming to smash the planet.  But, to remain expansive and optimistic, I should mention that Archie is not the dissipated alcoholic he might appear to be.   He may have bartered for the ability to spend thirty minutes with someone who has died.  More beautiful video and music help the Drinkwines and those close to them come to terms with what has happened.
This impressive play isn’t straightforward, but neither are most interesting people.  Alcoholism, overcoming fear of blood by painting with one’s own blood, storing a noose in one's office drawer, and other means of avoidance are slowly removed to reveal a multi-faceted picture of a family.  It’s the kind of show which doesn’t have a main character, and which calls for great performances from the entire ensemble. I applaud James L. Menzies, Richard C. Aven and the cast for avoiding cliché in their portrayal of young and old characters.