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The Velvet Sky

You're twelve, you don't have a sexuality!
---Bethany Palmer

Jeanine Serralles, Will Gartshore and Matthew Stadelmann
J. Serralles, W. Gartshore and M. Stadelmann (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Is it a delusion, a hallucination, a nightmare or reality? Does it matter in the end, so long as a child's safety is accomplished in the process? Woolly Mammoth delves into the shamanic aspects of alternate reality with the world premiere of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's The Velvet Sky. The playwright (a DC native who now resides in New York City and writes for Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four story line) takes audiences on a surreal journey of consciousness through this ninety-minute piece that melds the horrific with the comic. It's definitely a play that provides for post-show discussion.

First set in seemingly idyllic Blue Valley, Bethany Palmer and her husband Warren live seemingly simple lives in their seemingly tranquil setting. Their teensy, tiny house is picture book-like in it's one-dimensionality, much like their hoped for "normal" lives. However, Bethany has not had a full night's sleep since her son, Andrew, was born. Seems she's has been staying awake day and night protecting him from an unseen force -- The Sandman. (A villain not to be confused with any of the Marvel or DC comic book characters of the same name.)

The Sandman is a complex fellow, who usually gently drops magic stardust into the eyes of weary children to lull them to sleep. However, for some children -- those whose eyes he finds exceedingly exceptional -- he has a more nefarious desire. For these poor waifs, he plots and waits and when they are at their most vulnerable, he rips their eyes out with his claws and feeds the bloody eyeballs to his own children, who reside with him on the moon. For parents who want to save their children from this horrific fate, there is only one option -- guard their offspring night and day.

And so for Bethany, who has had a sense of impending doom ever since her son was born almost 13 years ago, sleep has been a luxury she could not afford. Instead she has spent the nights singing, reading children's stories and knitting sweaters for her son as a way of warding off the Sandman. Meanwhile, Warren has grown distant and distraught at her eccentricity as well as her sleep-deprived delirium.

Now the Sandman can only steal the eyes of children under thirteen (a rule that may seem arbitrary, but is the age when a child can begin to say "No"). And Bethany has been waiting for Andrew to reach his thirteenth birthday so that she can be assured his eyes will be safe and she can finally fall asleep. But two days before the boy's entry into teenhood, Warren announces he can no longer stay with his wife and is taking their son to go live in New York City. Bethany is distraught, Warren is oddly nervous, Andrew is caught in the middle, and a mysterious stranger seems to be stalking the boy for sex and, maybe, eyes.

Once the story moves to Manhattan, Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa melds fairy tales, folklore, pedophilia and denial into a compelling story that makes you squirm in your seat. If you accept it at its face value, it's not without its rough spots -- one grows weary of the whining adults, how Andrew is getting into adult venues, and how Warren and Bethany are crisscrossing the Big Apple at breakneck speed.

But if you look beyond it and see -- as the Sandman tells Bethany twenty minutes into the show -- that this journey is her own self-creation, then the entire production (and the writing) takes on a deeper meaning. You see the playwright has delved into a subconscious journey in which Bethany pulls back the veil of denial she has been living in all these years. And she begins to see the reality that the dangers for Andrew lie not in the outside world, but right inside his own home. (This is what I mean about it being a great post-show discussion piece.)

Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman and her technical staff have created an interesting storybook set that visually brings Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa's world to life. A huge moon glows in the background, stars shine above, sand is dropped onto the stage like an hourglass, a pterodactyl puppet flies about the set and the Palmer home splits in two. Martin Desjardins' and Vincent Olivieri's original music design add to the haunted atmosphere of the play, while Helen Huang's costumes are most highlighted by the uneven sweaters Bethany knits. This production moves quickly, keeps its intensity and bridges its multiple realities very well.

Jeanine Serralles as the almost hysterical Bethany balances the lines of manic comedy and deadly drama that are her character's touchstones. Will Gartshore brings out the unspoken aspects of Warren's character very well as you realize his still waters are running very deep.

Matthew Stadelmann hits every mark with his portrayal of Andrew. His mannerisms, tone, voice pitch and cadence of speech are all on target. And his earnestness makes his lines about going clubbing and delving into his sexuality all the more funny, while his alarm over being groped by a stranger shows the seriousness of pedophilia, which is the heart of the play's subject matter.

As the seemingly demonic Sandman, Rick Foucheux is wonderfully dark and malevolent, while also helping you see that the primary relationship in the play is between Bethany and himself. The one he is really after is not Andrew -- it's Bethany -- he's rousing her to wake up from her years-long slumber in order to save her son.

In supporting roles, Dawn Ursula is quite funny as museum worker Margaret Little who is being driven to madness by the constant roar of the museum's dinosaur exhibit. And Michael Russotto's myriad roles show off his versatility as an actor and his comic prowess.

To be totally honest, I didn't really appreciate The Velvet Sky until after I went home and pondered it a bit. Now I'm a fan. I highly recommend checking it out and seeing what you think, because it might even be a play you want to see a second time.

The Velvet Sky
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman
with Jeanine Serralles, Will Gartshore, Matthew Stadelmann, Dawn Ursula, Michael Russotto, Rick Foucheux
Set Design: Scott Bradley
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design and Original Music: Martin Desjardins and Vincent Olivieri
Costume Design: Helen Huang
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW
Telephone: 202-393-3939
WED - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $30-$48
Opening 01/30/06, closing 03/05/06
Reviewed by Rich See based on 02/05/06 performance
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© 2006  Elyse Sommer.