Sunday, May 05, 2013

Honey Fist

It's amazing what really excellent playwrights can pull off. Take the Flux Theatre Ensemble's Honey Fist, by the wonderful August Schulenburg. In a dry description, it sounds like a stew of worn-out tropes and creaky devices: a reunion of old buddies, mourning the friend who died; sparring between the one who moved away and the ones who stayed; the newcomer who doesn't fit in; significant alcohol and drug use; revealed secrets and heartbreaks; and so on. Yet in Schulenburg's deft hands, these rusty old parts become something new and shiny, funny and engaging, sad and meaningful, silly and occasionally wise. He does such a smooth and entertaining job, in fact, that by the time the storyline becomes completely unbelievable, you choose to believe it anyway.
Parquet, Rahn
Photo: Ken Glickfeld

How does Schulenburg pull this off? I believe Honey Fist succeeds because he makes this group of old friends unique, detailed, and vivid; this reunion specific and suspenseful; this sparring real, with high stakes and human failings; these secrets particular to these people and this time and place. In other words, he de-clichés
the clichés and un-tropes the tropes, with deep compassion and gentle humor.

And then there is the language:
Round this time I had this thing for this girl from summer camp, in Falmouth, for my Dad still had his mind and his job in those days; but this was a sweet-ass sleep-over camp and even though half the boys are still thinking girls got cooties, there was this one girl, Margaret Mayer, who even the hard-core cootie-phobes harbored a crush for. You know how it is, girls in the summer, in their soccer shorts, their pig-tails, they make your skin grow up before your mind knows a thing about it.
Sometimes I think, if Justin hadn’t died, I might’ve been an actual artsy-fartsy artist instead of one hell of a drunk carpenter. Crazy how something like that alters your course forever. Sometimes I feel that other life rubbing up against this one, you know? Like I could just breach that invisible wall and reach into that other life, where he’s still alive, and I’m, you know, finding the shapes in shapes for real. This is reflective pot, are you feeling reflective?
What's even better is the give-and-take of his dialogue, people chatting, bantering, wheedling, fighting, with distinctive voices, in language both lyrical and real.

Director Kelly O’Donnell smoothly leads a strong cast of Flux regulars and one newcomer. They are Matt Archambault, providing a calm center amid a fair amount of insanity; Nat Cassidy, full of nervous energy and desperation; Lori E. Parquet, beautiful, sad, and wry; Anna Rahn, somehow retaining her dignity even while behaving in a deeply undignified manner; Isaiah Tanenbaum, likeable in the least interesting role; and Chinaza Uche, doing his best work yet as man deeply in love and not sure what to do about it.

As I reread this rave review, part of me feels like I'm overselling the show. I don't think Honey Fist will live forever as a classic. I don't think it is Schulenburg's best work. But his brilliance is all over it, and as I see more and more mediocre plays (and I unfortunately see a lot of mediocre plays), I more deeply respect the skill it takes to write a good one.

(press ticket; 4th row)

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