By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
D.C. Copeland’s Play (at Shaking the Tree through August 8) is ostentatiously meta literary, operating on several levels in sometimes ponderous, sometimes engaging fashion. The show begins with a Narrator (John San Nicholas), who pontificates on the concept of theater before introducing a playwright, Flan (Vonessa Martin), who eventually creates a drama that unfolds as she writes it in front of us.
Play‘s most successful sequences involve those from Flan’s creation, which she titles “Grace’s Folly,” and which depicts the story of Grace (Kelly Godell), her daughter Rosalind (Tiffany Groben), and husband Andrew (Spencer Conway). Rosalind’s progression from social outcast to child actress to druggie starlet compels. Groben communicates both the wide-eyed innocence of youth and dead-eyed allure of glamour with magnetic aplomb.
These scenes also feature the most resonant interaction between the world of Flan and that of her fictional work. Through her narration we see, without her directly saying, how her experience informs Rosalind’s. Less successful are the lengthy interactions between Grace and her roommate Lola (Lauren Modica), with whom she negotiates the play’s development, in between parties and playacting. Though Modica, as usual, is excellent, Lola’s character feels ill-defined—somewhere beyond comic relief, but short of literary metaphor.
Play‘s most transporting moments occur when its layers shift, those moments when viewers have been drawn into the drama of one story, and the focus changes to another. This occurs most often in the middle third, when Grace’s drama is well-established, and Flan appears most engrossed in it. It’s then that the show’s meta conventions appear to have spun real magic, and the audience realizes its heart is tugged by multiple fictions hovering before it.
Fascinating, also, is the use of “the laugh sign,” a device encouraging the crowd to laugh at various characters’ humiliations. Nicholas’ Narrator feels wonderfully diabolical at these moments, insisting such mockery “is not sadism,” or climbing into the stands to physically egg spectators on. In such sequences, Play‘s meta elements turn on the form itself, prompting us to examine what we turn to theater for, and what that says about us, which are thrilling questions.
More often, though, the show’s post-modern devices feel a bit clunky, or sentimental. Toward the beginning, the Narrator’s frequent intrusions, which often involve the announcement, “She made a decision,” stunt the narrative’s momentum. Later, the drama suffers from multiple climaxes, each less rewarding than the last and more focused on Flan, which feels indulgent, a point made by the Narrator himself.
Play features many great performances. Conway is winningly earnest as Andrew, and very fun when sending up wooden leading-man tics. Joshua Weinstein steals several scenes as the stoner stagehand George, and Keiko Green is quite moving in her scenes with Conway, a relationship one wishes could have been further explored.
Though she receives ample stage time, the character Flan emerges as fairly uninteresting. Her experience appears to inform “Grace’s Folly,” but she herself experiences little during Play. The depiction of how her inspiration and personal wounds push and pull “Grace’s Folly” along rings true, but the attraction that develops between her and the Narrator toward the show’s end feels inexplicable.
Play delivers moments of true theater magic. One may leave, though, wishing they’d seen more drama and less commentary.
“Play” runs at Shaking the Tree (823 SE Grant) through August 8.