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A CurtainUp Review
Whorl Inside a Loop
By Charles Wright
In Whorl there is a moment in which Scott lets rip with a phrase or two of the von Trapp children's good-night song from The Sound of Music; but that's the extent of her singing. And though the script includes a good deal of humor, Scott doesn't exercise her well-known comedic talent to a very great extent either.
Whorl Inside a Loop, which Scott has written with Dick Scanlan (her co-author on the 2009 musical Everyday Rapture), is a serious, at times solemn, chronicle of the ups and downs experienced by a Broadway performer and her students during weekly classes in the arts program of a men's maximum security prison located three hours by car from New York City.
In the script Scott's character is identified merely as "The Volunteer" (a designation that turns out to be misleading). To Scott's credit and that of her directors Scanlan and Michael Mayer, this distinctive performer (the only woman in the cast) is not a star here but an integral, effective part of a well-coordinated ensemble of seven. The six men (Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, and Donald Webber, Jr.) play prisoners, but also transform themselves swiftly and decisively for multiple roles (male and female, young and old) in brief scenes. These scenes shift back and forth between the prison and Manhattan, where the unnamed Volunteer is contending with turbulence and disappointment in both the professional and personal parts of her life.
The topic of the Volunteer's 12-week course at the prison is "theatricalizing personal experience." She is an empathetic listener as the men share the monologues they've been assigned to write and a provocative guide as they explore improvisatory stage business to enhance their stories. Her students are a game crew, with talent, imagination, and dramatic memories to relate.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that the Volunteer is not really at the prison of her own volition: Like her students, she has a complicated personal history. But for privileged background and education, she might be facing misfortunes comparable to those of the six prisoners in the class.
The Second Stage playbill contains no program note explaining the provenance of this drama or the way the playwrights worked together (or with others) on the script. Five men — Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat, and Jeffrey Rivera — are credited as suppliers of "additional material." The biographies section of the playbill doesn't indicate who these "additional" writers are or the nature of their relationships, if any, to dramatists Scott and Scanlan. It's natural to wonder whether the prisoners' monologues, which are far and away the richest part of the script, may have been generated in a classroom or workshop such as the one depicted in the play.
Whorl Inside a Loop is performed on a bare stage, with only a few props and pieces of furniture which serve multiple purposes. Most of the scenes are brief and, in many instances, one bleeds seamlessly into the next, evoking the ad hoc qualities of documentary film. In its most emotionally captivating moments, such as Chris Myers's monologue about being incarcerated from age 16, the play has the urgency of a 60 Minutes segment on those (to quote the play) "who've lost their lives but are still living."
The play's odd title is a reference to the Volunteer's thumbprint. When fingerprinted for security purposes, she learns that image created by her thumb resembles the design on a peacock's tail feather; and she's told there is only one other person on the premises with such a print.
Though engaging and, at many points, compelling, Whorl Inside a Loop would undoubtedly benefit from a third stage of development after the current Second Stage run. The speed-demon pace of Mayer and Scanlan's direction and the narrative velocity of the spare, streamlined script are, at once, a blessing and a hindrance.
Whorl is a relentless whirl and parts of it, specifically the scenes of the Volunteer's Manhattan life, are rendered in off-hand caricature. Like a speedboat skipping across a lake, Whorl Inside a Loop covers immense territory; but neither the script or the production penetrates the sparkling surface that the authors and directors have contrived. Too much is unexplored; too many questions unanswered. Even the image of the peacock tail-feather design, that whorl in the loop, though interestingly evocative, is unplumbed.
To read Curtainup's review to Every Day Rapture, this team's previous hit at Second Stage and on Broadway, click here