Sunday, January 22, 2012


Raushanah Simmons,
Ingrid Nordstrom
  Photo: Justin Hoche
Something there is that doesn't love a wall. So begins Robert Frost's well-loved poem "Mending Wall," and so also begins Erin Browne's flawed but compelling new play, Menders, currently being presented by the fabulous Flux Theatre Ensemble. Menders takes place in a future world where a giant wall separates safety and "us" from all that is ugly, wrong, and "them." At least that's what Corey and Ames have been brought up to believe.

Corey and Ames are trainee wall menders. Both are just recently out of school. Ames is nervous, but Corey is confident, gung-ho, and absolutely certain that their side of the wall is the right side. Their trainer is the burnt-out and disappointed Drew, who passes the time telling Corey and Ames stories that seem magical to the young trainees. Their world has been so circumscribed that the tale of a winged woman doesn't seem all that much more exotic than a tale of two women falling in love.

But somewhere along the way, Corey is jailed. We--and she--never find out what her crime is, and the play occurs in flashback as she tells the audience--her jury--everything that has happened since she first became a mender.

Playwright Browne cares about the world. She cares about politics and feminism and self-expression and governmental repression. She sees vividly how today's world could turn into tomorrow's dystopia. In an interview with blogger Zach Calhoon, Browne explains that the play grew out of a "melange" of ideas and that "Robert Frost's idyllic and concrete world of everyday things guided all of those ideas into the first draft of Menders." However, her play goes well past Frost's poem--in fact, the frequent use of Frost's words is distracting and misleading. The people on the two sides of Frost's poem are civil neighbors; they are not "us" and "them." Frost's poem is small and neat; Browne's play is large and messy (messy isn't a criticism here--the wealth of ideas is one of the play's greatest strengths). However, this part of the poem does resonate in the play: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out." Corey doesn't mean to ask that question, but she becomes unable not to.

Browne's play doesn't totally work at a plot and detail level. Corey is perhaps a bit too gung-ho. The stories that Drew tells don't offer enough to justify the time they are given. The characters' growth and changing relationships sometimes seem mistimed. What's actually on each side of the wall is not as clear as it might be. But the play's energy, ideas, and big heart more than make up for its weaknesses. 

Heather Cohn's direction is imaginative and clear and well-paced. Asa Wember's sound design is quietly unsettling, providing just the right emotional effect. Some of Trevor James Martin's video projections work better than others. In some cases, they come across as visual noise; in others, they are just right; and in a few, they are (appropriately) chilling.

As always with Flux productions, the cast is excellent. Sol Marina Crespo handles Corey's development and the play's fractured chronology very well. Matt Archambault as Drew provides exactly the right mix of smooth charm, exhaustion, and manipulativeness. Isaiah Tanenbaum does a lovely job depicting Ames' awakening. And Raushanah Simmons and Ingrid Nordstrom are wonderful as wooer and wooee, though Simmons may be a little too beautiful for the part--it's hard to understand why anyone would say no to her.

Overall, Menders is well worth seeing. 

(press ticket; third row on the aisle)

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