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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Yet, none of the more high profile, prestigious companies that would likely welcome any new work by Howe, put out the welcome mat for Singing Beach. But for Theatre 167's artistic director Ari Laura Kreith the play was not just an opportunity to stage a script by a theater luminary, but one well suited to her company's penchant for dramas with a fantastical bent, shades of their You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase. Like that play, Singing Beach is a surreal fairy tale book-ended by a realistic plot playing out "in the not-too-distant future."
Howe has set her realistic main story in the Manchester, Massachussetts beach front home of poet Ashton Sleeper's family. In addition to being faced with the increase in hurricanes as a result of climate change, their beloved patriarch's physical and mental decline has reached a critical stage.
As the play opens the silenced-by-grief over his wife's death and unable to fend for himself Ashton Sleeper (Tuck Milligan) is a hovering presence at the far side of the stage. The focus is on the sandwich generation characters, his daughter Merrie (Erin Beirnard) and her second husband Owen (John P. Keller) trying to ease the tension about taking him to to a nursing home.
The impending hurricane turns this into a double evacuation: The whole family's temporary move to safety, and the Senior Sleeper's permanent exodus from the family circle to an institution better able to care for him.
Add to this conundrum the children from Merrie's first marriage to the gay Sebastian Flood (also played by Keller in the fantastical sub-plot): The precocious 12-year-old Tyler (Jackson Demott Hill) and 10-year-old Piper (Elodie Lucinda Morss) who really is just 10, not a young-looking adult). It's Piper who shifts the focus from realism to surrealism and thereby becomes Howe's central story teller and at least half of the 75-minutes plays out in Piper's head.
The drama conjured up in Piper's imagination takes us on a voyage of her model of the grand steamer on which her grandparents used to travel. Within the boundaries of that fairy tale, Ashton Sleeper's caretaker Bennie becomes the ship's captain; Piper's mother Merrie metamorphoses as the sexy science teacher Miss Blake; Piper's stepfather Owen shows up as her real father Sebastian; brother Tyler becomes Credo, a mischievous stowaway; and the people at the Captain's table (an amusingly low-tech prop consisting of a large cloth) are joined by a TV star named Gabriel (Devin Haqq). Piper's grandpa of course no longer needs nursing home care though his joining in on the ice skating in July indicates that there's no escape from the weather.
It's admirable and timely that Howe addresses several extremely relevant issues of modern life, including her own (Howe's beloved husband is in the middle stages of Alzheimer's). However, the timeliness is also the most dominant flaw of both the script and the director's staging.
The plot's realistic pivotal points and the fairy tale detours somehow don't mesh, nor are they easy to follow. It's hard to put the blame squarely on the script or the dedicated but uneven performances. But relying on a ten-year-old to handle the demanding role of Piper is especially problematic.
These problems aren't helped by the too busy and unappealing abstract scenery, or the fact that the double role playing lacks fluidity; tor example, the total disappearance of Piper's mother into the character of her science teacher Miss Blake is hard to believe, even within the fantasy framework.
Young Piper's imaginative plan to use her miniature tents and ships to save her grandfather is pleasing proof that Tina Howe, though on the cusp of becoming an octogenarian, is still gamely creating new work — and doing with the sort of experimental approach previously evident in her adaptation of Ionesco's Bald Soprano and her less well-known play Birth and Afterbirth. (That 1973 absurdst comedy will be restaged this fall at the Atlantic Theater which previously mounted it in 2006).
I'd like to report that Singing Beach is a triumphant example of taking an entertaining, hopeful look at the realities of climate change and aging through a child's imagination. Unfortunately, it's more disappointing than exhilarating. Applause nevertheless to the playwright, the director and actors for trying.
While Pride's Crossing and Chasing Manet are the only Howe play I saw and reviewed when they premiered, I've caught some very fine revivals of her justifiably popular Museum (my own favorite), Coastal Disturbances and Painting Churches. I rather doubt that Singing Beach will, like those plays, have much of a life as a revival. However, I wouldn't be surprised if Ms. Howe comes up with another world premiere that will have me singing its praises.
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Singing Beach by Tina Howe
Directed by Ari Laura Kreith
Cast: Erin Beirnard (Marrie/Mss Blake), Devin Haqq (Gabriel), Jackson Demott Hill (Tyler/Credo), John P. Keller (Owen/Sebastian), Tuck Milligan (Sleeper) Elodie Lucinda Morss (Piper), Naren Weiss (Bennie/Captain).
Scenic design by Jen Price Fick
Lighting design by Matthew J. Fick
Costume design by Caroline Spitzer
Prop design by Kelly Pooler
Stage Manager: Courtney Lynn Leggett
Running Time: 76 minutes, no intermission
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue 866-811-4111
From7/22/17; opening 7/30/17; closing 8/12/17. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 4:00pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/30 press opening
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