Sunday, April 19, 2015


When all is lost, what is left? What can be salvaged? In the Flux Theatre Ensemble production of August Schulenburg's new play, Salvage, these questions are faced by survivors of a regional apocalypse. (New York City is basically gone, but Idaho and Japan seem to be okay.)

Akiko, Noma, and Mandy are searchers. Each day they put on Hazmat suits and go into the ruins of New York to find anything of value. A cobbled-together meter then registers whether the found items are likely to cause "the Tox," which is never described but clearly to be avoided.

 Mihm, Tanenbaum, Hip-Flores, Crespo
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Akiko was a teacher and the daughter of a poet; she records an audio diary addressed to her father, who did not make it through the devastation. Noma was (and is?) an actor. She explains:
Well, like, I’m still an actor even if there’s not, you know, opportunities to do it, that’s like the thing about actors, you’re still an actor even if you’re not acting, which most of the time you’re not, even when there isn’t a, you know, catastrophe, so. 
Mandy is part of the Welcome Home Warriors job program. He was a soldier and now uses a wheelchair to get around. And then there is the boss, Dennis. The day after the apocalypse, he explains:
I watched the news and I tried to feel sad but sadness was not what I felt. Perhaps that makes me sound like an uncaring person, but I’ve always cared, I’ve always cared too much, and I never knew what to do with that too much, whenever I tried to express that too much, it was always…
But, looking at all the crying people in all the crying cities, I knew, I had the realization that the things that made too much Before would be just right After; now, the things that made me so alone would make me necessary. I felt happy, I felt joy, I felt like I belonged in this new world and I registered immediately for the recovery effort and it turned out I was right, no one cared if you knew how to tell a joke or make women want you, they just cared that you showed up early and were meticulous and I’m so meticulous, ...
In parallel to their time spent searching through the wreckage, the four characters also try to salvage what they can in themselves: humor, fun, sex, love, connection, and basic humanity. They would not have hung around together Before, but as some of the last people in New York, they can't help but care about each other After. At one point Dennis is surprised to realize that Akiko deeply cares about Noma and Mandy. He says, "For some reason, I thought you didn’t like these people, these 'idiots' as you called them." Akiko replies, "Oh, they’re idiots, but they’re the idiots I’ve got, you know?"

Within its consideration of the big ideas (you know, the meaning of life), Salvage minutely examines these four unique individuals who are trying to deal with paralyzing loss without actually being paralyzed. As always, Schulenburg combines compassion and humor. The audience ends up loving the characters as much as he so obviously does.

[here be spoilers]

The only thing that keeps Salvage from being 100% satisfying, to me at least, is the ending. To a certain extent, Schulenburg writes himself into a corner, and perhaps the most honest ending would be for all four characters to die. Instead, one definitely lives, one almost definitely dies, and the status of the other two is left ambigrous. The ending is poetic--and funny--but feels written while the rest of the play feels lived.

On the other hand, my favorite moments in the play--and there are many--occur at the junction of human desire and human messiness. As one example, the sex scene between Noma and Mandy is a tour de force of multilayered writing, direction, and acting. Noma is sad, turned on, and afraid Mandy really wants to be with Akiko. Mandy is thrilled to be having sex but not sure of his ability to perform. Both have been drinking heavily and want the sex to remove them from their current reality. They are sexy, clumsy, and haunted.

As another example, Dennis has a scene with just him and Akiko's audio diary. He loves Akiko, and he has gone to Japan as a tribute to her. He is playing a section of the diary where Akiko is reciting poetry, and it is perhaps the most emotional moment of his life. But then he has to dart to the recorder and press stop when Akiko changes topics and says, "...Dennis, the weird boss guy, he switched around my—" Schulenburg chooses reality over sentimentality, and the scene is all the more moving for it.

[end of spoilers]

Heather Cohn's direction and the work of the four actors (Sol Crespo, Rachael Hip-Flores, Mike Mihm, Isaiah Tanenbaum) are superb. Tanenbaum in particular is giving the best performance I've seen from him as Dennis; he lets us glimpse the emotions beyond Dennis's rigid surface, and his joy when something unexpectedly wonderful happens is beautiful. The design elements are all excellent (scenic design: Will Lowry; lighting design: Kia Rogers; costume design: Becky Byers; sound design: Janie Bullard; prop design: Alisha Spielmann).


This speech comes fairly late in the play and may reveal more than you want to know. It's a great speech, however, and very Schulenburgian (Schulenburgesque?); I love it. It's Dennis talking to Akiko:
When I think about it [the possibility of being involved with Akiko], when I dream about it, and I do, dream about it, all the time: when I imagine how it will be, I’ve done something so perfect all the things that are wrong with me, all my static, all that falls away. My appearance, my below average height and below average musculature, all that falls away and you see the angel within me, and he is so tall and handsome and bright, and I think we all are like that, I think we all have angels, Noma has an angel that’s punctual, Mandy has an angel that stands on two feet, we all have them, and when we’re born, we cry cry cry because we’re angels stuck in bodies that don’t know how to do anything, and we forget, we do, about what’s inside but you, well, you’re not like that. You’re maybe the only one who walks around with her angel burning in broad daylight, sometimes I joke with myself like, “how does Akiko not melt her Hazmat suit with all that burning angel”, but well, that wasn’t your question, but I needed to say that to answer it, because for us to be together, we can’t be together now, I know that, no, but when I learn to get out of my angel’s way—and I’m trying, every day, I’m trying—when I do that, and you can see what’s burning inside of me, then, oh, then, maybe then, we can be together.
[no more spoilers]

Salvage is playing through April 25th. It is very much worth your while.

(In addition to doing fantastic productions, Flux is attempting to redefine the economics of theatre with their Living Ticket initiative. Click here for more information.)

(press ticket; first row center)

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