The Approach; Courtesy of Capital Fringe Festival

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The Watershed’s production of Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s The Approach is one of the most impressively designed shows at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival. As the audience takes their seats, three women sit with their backs to the audience, and other chairs are precariously balanced on two legs. There is a large round table in the center, and lamps have placed everything in a sharp chiaroscuro. Set designer April Joy Bastian and lighting designer Venus Gulbranson have decided to warn us about perspectives. Composer Reid May, meanwhile, mixes plucked strings, harmonics, and chimes.

A piano theme comes in, the women rise, place their own chairs in off-kilter positions, and we find ourselves in a more naturalistic scene. Old friends Anna (Nancy Bannon) and Cora (Tessa Klein) drink from oversize mugs in a café in Dublin (David Markey serves as dialect coach). They make small talk, reminisce, and update each other on their lives. They were once very close, having attended school together, and along with Anna’s sister, Denise (Watershed founder Madeleine Burke Pitt), lived together for some years after graduation. But it’s been years since they last spoke. Anna and Denise have become estranged: Denise had started dating Anna’s boyfriend Oliver either shortly after or shortly before they broke up, and Anna refused to attend Oliver’s funeral. Neither sister has forgiven the other, though Anna has a new, compassionate love, Wayne (who, as a romantic gesture, makes crossword puzzles in which all the hints relate to their dates). By the time Anna and Cora part, they have promised to stay in touch.

Some indefinite time later, Cora meets with Denise, perhaps at the same cafe. Denise is married to Jarred and has a son named Connor. They share some of the same stories: late night chats over the kitchen table when they lived together, Oliver’s funeral, and the feud between the sisters. Then something odd occurs: Cora describes her new boyfriend, Noah, who makes crossword puzzles with a different set of romantic clues.

By the time Anna and Denise reconcile, months or years have passed and both Wayne and Jarred are long gone, and Denise has her own tale of crossword puzzle romance. There is something bizarre going on. At some point, the audience realizes that the actors have been stage-lit so that their shadows have their backs to one another. Director Michael Chamberlin has been leaning in to the enigma all along. 

The script will never pass the Bechdel test because men are always the topic of discussion, though with the exception of Oliver, who is long dead, none of the other men seem to stick around. O’Rowe has crafted engaging dialogue, but the differences between his three protagonists are slight considering their years of estrangement. Could all three of them have had crossword puzzle-crafting lovers? Or do they appropriate each other’s stories to spice up their personal narrative? Is anything they say not a fiction created for one another? Are they facets of an incomplete person? Or has O’Rowe simply created a puzzle-box with no rational solution, using paradox to amuse as with a print by M.C. Escher, or unsettle as with a painting by René Magritte. Either way, we get three powerful performances from Bannon, Klein, and Pitt, and an auspicious inaugural event for The Watershed.

Presented by The Watershed, The Approach, by Mark O’Rowe and directed by Michael Chamberlin as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, runs through July 24 at Representation (formerly Washington Sports Club) 3270 M St. NW. capitalfringe.org. $15.