Monday, May 14, 2018

Review: Looking Back and Forward and Up and Down

By Ed Malin

Flux Theatre Ensemble is presenting The Sea Concerto, a new play written by August Schulenberg and directed by Heather Cohn and Kelly O’Donnell.  This award-winning ensemble has brought together many of its co-founders and creative partners for what promises to be another noteworthy reshaping of reality onstage.  Is the sea a concerto?  Listen, if Paul Verlaine’s “Claire de Lune” begets Debussy’s sweet piano suite, then you should get yourself to the ART/NY Theatres and see this one.  This show contains jazz and other flights of improvisation, which the ensemble has developed into a solidly impressive offering.
 You could say this is a memory play.  The beautiful, earnest Lynnie (Morgan McGuire) is now a post-college writer thinking back on her childhood beach summers with her family.  She watches, wide-eyed, as the events of her 8 year-old self unfold onstage.  We are somewhere in gorgeous New England, at a beach house where two sisters and their husband and their aging patriarch mix family business with pleasure.  Lynnie’s father is Eric (Corey Allen), a jazz trumpeter, who is married to Penny (Emily Hartford), a forward-thinking woman who is writing a book about voodoo rituals.  Penny’s loyal sister, Janet (Alisha Spielmann), is married to Jimbo (Greg Bodine), who is ready to make a fortune in real estate development.  Jimbo has been pressuring Eric to take a more important job with the firm, which would mean less music but more security for his family.  The company run by Penny and Janet’s father, Chappy (John Lenartz), who got this name from his fun-loving Charlie Chaplin impersonations, will someday go to either Jimbo or Eric.  The family appears to be loving but, under these circumstances, starts to tear itself apart through ruthless competition.
 We see all sorts of flashbacks, surrounded by the first shellfish of the season (can’t you taste them?) and the sounds of the sea (indeed, by the rest of the ensemble washing up and down in their chairs).  Through Kia Rogers’s lighting, it really feels like we’re watching the sun blaze and set over the shore.  Speaking of, Jimbo announces himself by looking at the sun and musing what it would be like to f@&# a sunset.  Jimbo, with sweater tied about his waist in high-80s fashion, perfectly acts the part of the douchebag investor.  We see him explain that regulations are for poor people, as he sinks the family in ill-advised loan fraud with Eric’s forged signatures on hundreds of documents.  Eric, already split from his true, musical self, finds it hard to stay in this toxic environment.  Young Lynnie can sense his unhappiness, though it is mixed with amazing adventures such as Chappy telling his war stories and giving the family “flying lessons” from the comfort of their beach chairs.
photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum
Eric wants to take his wife and child away from this incriminating situation, but Penny wants to stay and care for Chappy, who is now in a wheelchair.  (For Penny, perhaps read Penelope, the mythological character who stands by her husband even when the sea keeps them apart.)  You should go see this show and watch Lynnie process what happens/happened to her family.  You may want to try drama therapy to sort out your own family.  As the cast become surgeons trying to cut away their past, you may need a tissue.
This is a play that is conscious of its artifice.  At one point, Lynnie is so overcome by her memories that she calls an intermission.  On Will Lowry’s lovely beach house set, some characters are perched on top of the world while others play in the sand below and spiral down into the depths of misery and uncertainty, nearly drowning in the process. Megan “Deets” Culley’s sound design has raging jazz trumpet solos rip through some of the scenes.  Eric, often the silent and contemplative type, finally tells Jimbo an anecdote about a trumpeter who used to exit a riff and blow air, just like Jimbo is blowing bullshit.  Bad businessmen pull the good air out a room like a sponge, but a good player makes music flow like water.  The poetry of this show helps it take on the ethical grey areas, the questions facing a multi-racial family and their daughter who grows up to hear she “doesn’t belong anywhere”.  Johanna Pan costumes the ensemble to represent the best parts that you would see in a nostalgic flashback. Directors Heather Cohn and Kelly O’Donnell give us the family scenes that children aren’t supposed to see, such as that terrible fight between the sisters and the revolt of the weasley son-in-law against the old man.