Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Sans Merci

In Sans Merci, written by Johnna Adams and directed by Heather Cohn, two young women, Kelly (the awkwardly, impressively real Rachael Hip-Flores) and Tracy (the lovely and intense Alisha Spielmann), fall in love and decide to try to save the world, starting with a small mountain in Colombia. Their plans go terribly, fatally, wrong. Some years later, Tracy's mother Elizabeth (the wry, subtle, and heartbreaking Susan Ferrara) shows up at Kelly's home, seeking information, Tracy's belongings, and ownership of Tracy's memory. She does not seek closure; in fact, she and Kelly both cherish their grief. 
Susan Ferrara, Rachael Hip-Flores
Photo: Titus Winters
Elizabeth and Kelly go on to spar a bit, but with a strong underlying connection. Elizabeth may be a Republican who wishes that her daughter had never met Kelly, and she may be there to take some of Kelly's treasured keepsakes of Tracy, but both recognize their unshakeable connection: they, and only they, understand the true, deep horror of losing Tracy.

Sans Merci is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, grueling, and, yes, merciless. It is also damn good. Johnna Adams gives us three-dimensional characters in all their messy glory, and Heather Cohn provides her usual clean and smartly paced direction. The scenery by Charles Murdock Lucas supplies a strong sense of who lives there, and the lighting by Kia Rogers and the sound by Janie Bullard contribute a vivid emotional landscape. It's another excellent production from the Flux Theatre Ensemble.

(The title, by the way, references Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," which was/is loved by both Tracy and Elizabeth and which was instrumental in Tracy and Kelly's becoming friends. The poem is about being left behind after a deep love, and it is echoed in the play in ways both metaphorical and concrete.)

There are points where the edginess of Sans Merci tips over into creepiness. While it is difficult to experience some of these moments, they are also some of the play's strengths.

For example: Kelly lays out the clothing that was torn from Tracy before she was murdered, and Elizabeth finds this a comforting sight, feeling that it partially makes up for having been unable to see her daughter's body. She explores the remnants of Tracy's suffering with something like a sense of wonder.

For example: When the show starts, Kelly is lying on the couch, listening to her iPod, her hand in her pants. She seems more to be comforting herself, holding on to herself, than touching herself. We later find out that she is listening to Tracy's accidentally-taped tirade against her murderers. This tirade is Tracy's declaration of independence: with her clothing, dignity, future, and (she thinks) her lover stripped away, she banishes her fears and panic attacks and spews out her emotions. Her outburst (which, injured and nude, she screams at the audience) ends with the bullet that ends her life. It is an excruciating moment and a very successful piece of theater, even though the tirade itself goes on too long (it becomes repetitive, and the murderers would have shot her much sooner; with her nudity, it almost tips over into suffering porn).

Elizabeth also listens to the tape, once. After Kelly tells her it exists, she can't resist hearing it. In a way it is a gift, providing her with a hysterical catharsis that she desperately needs. However, when Kelly then offers her a copy (a moment that was greeted with understandable nervous laughter the night I saw the show), Elizabeth says no (which seems a sane answer).

But we're left with the question: why does Kelly listen to Tracy's dying words over and over? I think listening to the tape is Kelly's penance and comfort both. She feels responsible for Tracy's death (with some justification), and listening to her murder over and over again is brutal. On the other hand, Tracy goes in a blaze of glory, during which she declares her love and respect for Kelly at the top of her lungs. It is a testimonial to their relationship; it is proof that Tracy did not blame her; it is a pure, uncensored version of the woman Kelly loved.

And why is Kelly's hand in her pants? I think she is holding herself together. Because she and Tracy were being physical when they were attacked--because Kelly had practically badgered Tracy into having sex at that moment--Kelly's sexual life may well be over, destroyed by guilt and memories. But listening to the tape is unquestionably, if weirdly, intimate. Does she feel any arousal? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure I'd want to know.

Grief is not pretty, or sane, and Adams is willing to wrestle with that.

[end of spoilers]
I'm find I'm still thinking about Sans Merci. I try to figure out the characters' motivations--and the playwright's. I become more aware of its flaws and more aware of its strengths. It is a brave play--braver sometimes in its quiet moments than in its showy ones--and, in its own way, beautiful.

(third row on the aisle, press ticket) 

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