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At the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Ampitheatre to Aug. 27
Marie Osmond croons something about her little corner of the world, there at the very beginning of 3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian, and the girl with the scrapbook and the girl on the rooftop do seem to inhabit private places all their own. They’ll meet any moment now, though, and inside 75 minutes or so they’ll carve out a shared space that’s no less intimate—and at Theater Alliance, in the world-premiere production of 17-year-old Phoebe Rusch’s startlingly accomplished debut play, that space is the space of memory, lyrically conceived and lovingly rendered in a production as warm and open-hearted as its heroine.
That’s saying something about director Paul-Douglas Michnewicz, about his imaginative design team and his graceful, easygoing cast, because Rusch’s play can be a heady thing. It’s full of references to Camus and Castaneda, peppered with notes on genetics and the Stoics, packed with arguments about living now and living well, living fully and living responsibly. Of course they’re 17, too, the young women in Rusch’s story, so it’s also chock-full of laughs and sex, misbehavior and boundary-pushing and Op-language, all deployed as two fast friends negotiate their last year of high school and stretch their arms out to embrace the future in a world that resolutely refuses to guarantee one.
It’s the ’70s, and Emily (the wonderfully awkward Marybeth Fritzky) has transferred in from Iowa, still burdened by the white stockings and the scuffed brogans of her Lutheran adolescence. She’s ripe for an awakening, in other words, so when she lands in the desk next to long-haired, languid-eyed Viv (Nora Woolley) in biology class, it’s only a matter of minutes before Emily’s skipping class and smoking up. And falling hard: “I loved her so much in those moments of co-conspiracy,” Emily confesses, which is all the information you need to understand that their story’s end will have the tang of bittersweetness.
But you knew that, because it is after all a memory play, which means something’s missing in the here-and-now, something that needs memorializing. Cues come, too, from Dan Conway’s storybook set—a dormered, shake-shingled roof shadowed by a stand of birches, sloping down toward the audience and transforming itself into a wide sheet of ruled paper, a page from the book of the girls’ lives—which plants the story firmly in the realm of memory and myth, striking notes of whimsy and fable before Rusch’s characters even begin to speak. On such a playground, the rich language she uses to spin their story never seems the slightest bit precious. Dan Covey’s precise and painterly lights prove every bit as eloquent, and someone (there’s no specific credit, so let’s assume a collaboration) covers the walls of the H Street Playhouse with projections—a pregnant moon, a wash of glowing text—that underscore the play’s lyricism without ever flirting with the maudlin.
All of which would be nothing, of course, without the warmly intelligent performances the design work is meant to frame and the light-touch direction that keeps it all so nicely focused. St. Vivian might sound like a play overstuffed with notions, like an exercise in genre or an excuse for a precocious writer to show off her phrase-turning gifts, but Rusch’s finest accomplishment is to make it a play about two compelling characters. Fritzky and Woolley handle the language effortlessly, and they negotiate the play’s fanciful flights without breaking a sweat, but chiefly they make Em and Viv seem urgently, vibrantly alive. And Michnewicz, whose sensitive staging of The Spitfire Grill two seasons back made that musical trifle seem almost wonderful, builds something genuinely moving on the sturdier foundation of this script. There’s a line, somewhere in the descending arc of the second half of Rusch’s lovely play, somewhere between the flaring and the dimming of a life, about wishing it were possible to hold beauty. If only: 3/4 of a Mass for St. Vivian is a thing worth holding close.
I confess I’ve been avoiding Natural Theatricals. Not because the smallish, newish, Alexandria-based company got crucified last season by the Washington Post’s second-stringer. And not entirely because word-of-mouth was similarly harsh—though I did hear from people whose judgment I trust that some of their early work could be an ordeal.
Mostly, I wanted to give the company a chance to find its feet. And I’m glad I waited: Bob Bartlett’s staging of Euripides’ 2,400-year-old Phoenician Women may not be perfect, but it’s a damn sight stronger than some of the half-baked work I’ve seen from companies purporting to understand the Greeks—and the elemental, earthy Jocasta at its center is one performance I’m actively glad to have in my scrapbook.
The lady in question, you’ll remember from your freshman classics class, is the late wife of Oedipus, that riddle-solving, father-killing, mother-marrying, eye-poking King of Thebes. Except that here she’s very much alive—apparently Euripides liked to toy with his audience’s expectations, so never mind that Sophocles (and tradition) had already established that Jocasta hanged herself upon learning all that business above. Oedipus is apparently still rattling around the palace, too, rather than wandering blind through the desert toward Colonus. But have no fear: Phoenician Women is a tragedy, after all, so we’ll get there.
The plot’s chock-full of incident, so let’s just sketch it in: Oedipus’ two sons have been squabbling over the Theban throne, and now the exiled brother has brought an army to help him make his point. (If you’re thinking Seven Against Thebes, you’re keeping up nicely: Euripides folded together the plots of that earlier Aeschylus drama along with Sophocles’ Antigone, spicing it up with bits of Oedipus Tyrannos and so on.) There’s a good deal of swaggering and some pleading for peace courtesy of Jocasta and the boys’ comely young sister, Antigone, plus a prophecy, a ritual sacrifice, and of course a big battle. All of which, except for the swaggering and the pleading and the prophecy, takes place offstage, as is customary in Greek dramas, and is afterward recounted by characters who’ve seen it to characters who haven’t.
What’s exciting about Natural Theatricals’ take on all this is that by and large, Bartlett manages to make it…well, exciting. Jocasta is a titanic creature, a tragic monster doomed by one bit of history (her complicity in the act of child-abandonment that kicked off Oedipus’ story) to be caught up in another (her sons’ reciprocal fratricide, which will eventually drive her to self-slaughter), and Baltimore-based performer Cherie Weinert has the knack of size—hers is an epic Jocasta when the moment demands it, and a convincingly individual, maternal one when that seems the thing. If the rest of the cast doesn’t have quite the same range or fluency, there are still some strong performances. Marissa Molnar does affecting work in Antigone’s more intimate moments, even if she hasn’t found a way to make the hugeness of the character’s tragedies resonate; Jason Nious and Trei Ramsey, as the warring brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes, conversely seem more at home in the bravura stretches than in the one-on-ones.
But Todd F. Edwards does intensely atmospheric things with candles and faux-marble blocks and spooky soundscapes, and Andrew F. Griffin calibrates his lights to extract maximum drama from the extraordinary ampitheatre space at Alexandria’s George Washington Masonic National Memorial. And the play, of course, is a ridiculously rewarding thing: Carl R. Mueller’s translation makes muscular work of Euripides’ richly detailed hymn to Thebes, a chronicle as much about the city’s myths and landscapes as about the tragedies of those who inhabit them. In all, it’s a fine introduction—to the play, which is hardly the usual sort of small-company offering, and to an ensemble that’s just mad enough to make such things its mission.CP