Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Sea Concerto

Before the Internet, daily-newspaper theater critics would see shows on opening night and write their reviews immediately after. Although these reviews often determined the fate of the show, the critics barely had time to think about what they had seen before their deadlines.

Morgan McGuire, Corey Allen
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

This is on my mind because I saw Flux Theatre Ensemble's new play, The Sea Concerto, last week, and I'm still not 100% sure what I think about it. I've considered it at length, and I've read the script as well, but I'm still not sure. Also, it's possible I didn't understand everything.

Here's what I definitely did get: August Schulenburg's writing, as always, is lyrical, heartfelt, and compassionate. Heather Cohn and Kelly O’Donnell's direction is, as always, clear, smooth, and creative. The production values, as always, are high: fabulous set by Will Lowry; costumes that elucidate and support the characters by Johanna Pan; moody and attractive lighting by Kia Rogers; evocative sound design by Megan “Deets” Culley.* The ensemble of actors (Corey Allen, Greg Oliver Bodine, Emily Hartford, John Lenartz, Morgan McGuire, and Alisha Spielmann) is strong; in particular, Corey Allen shines as Eric, giving a subtle, quietly meaningful performance that centers the play.

Overall, The Sea Concerto is excellent, especially the second act, which feels more thought through than the first. It's well worth seeing.

Greg Oliver Bodine, Corey Allen
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

Now, here are my questions and reservations about the show, along with more details on its many strengths.

[spoilers aplenty]
First, a highly simplified synopsis: Eric, an African-American trumpet player, has married into a wealthy white family, and now the pressure is on for him to get more involved in the family business. His wife, Penny, vacillates between wanting him to focus on his music and wanting him to focus on the business. Her sister, Janet, is married to Jimbo, a jerk who also works in the business; unlike Eric, he lusts for money. Eric's father-in-law, who owns the business, pits the men against each other and in general behaves like the entitled paterfamilias he is, manipulating everyone and complicating their relationships.

The play begins with Lynnie, Eric's daughter, talking directly to the audience about how she wants to conjure up her father to find out why he gave up music. She does not use the word conjure as a metaphor (or at least not totally); Lynnie actually enacts a ritual to call the spirit of her father. She knows that other spirits may come as well, and she knows that she cannot control what will occur or be sure of what it will mean.

This is where I have my biggest problem, and it may be because I don't live comfortably in the land of metaphor. If The Sea Concerto is a memory play, then we know that Lynnie is giving us her memories, and that we will need to judge if she is a reliable narrator or not. But since she is conjuring spirits of people dead and living, and we know that the spirits may have their own agendas, we are another level away from knowing the significance of what we are watching.

Alisha Spielmann, Emily Hartford
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

For example, in the opening monologue, Lynnie refers to her dad as currently being "a man who wears his skin like a suit that’s too big for him." But by the end of the play, we have learned that she hasn't seen Eric in years. I'm not sure what to do with this. Is she being an unreliable narrator? Is there something I'm not getting? Is it just a mistake? Am I picking nits?

Similarly, Lynnie's grandfather begins the play ill and ends up at death's door, where he spends six long years. Is that because time isn't linear in the play? Or because he looms so large in the family's mythology that his ill health and death take up prodigious amounts of psychic acreage?

More importantly, it is almost impossible to know why Eric does indeed give up music. On one hand, he's a major people pleaser, and he decides to commit more time to the business as a way to be a good husband and father. Also, he does not come from money and privilege, and he may see working in the business as a way to prove himself as a man. So it would seem that he gives up the trumpet because of his need to be loved, to be a good dad, and to impress his father-in-law.

Then, at the end of the play, Janet tells Lynnie that Eric once told her, “I used to play perfect and now I can’t anymore. I can’t play perfect, so I don’t want to play.” When did he say this? Was it before he got further involved in the business? Is it why he let himself get dragged into work he didn't actually want? Is Janet to be trusted? She seems to have had a friendship with Eric that hasn't been even hinted at. At this point, she seems to be herself rather than the spirit of herself, but I'm not sure what that means in terms of reliability.

Similarly, when Janet and Penny have a run-in (a powerful scene gorgeously acted by Alisha Spielmann and Emily Hartford), Janet comments on how much Penny likes to spend money. We haven't seen this at all; is Janet right or being unfair?

Emily Hartford, John Lenartz
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

It's not a great idea to review the play you'd like to see rather than the one the playwright wrote, but here goes: I wish The Sea Concerto was just a plain old memory play. For me, the ritual theme took more from the play than it gave, and every time the spirits were slowly wobbling back into spirit-land, I was impatient to get back to the story. Of course, as I said above, I may have missed the full significance of the rituals, but this is how the show hit me.

[end of spoilers]
The thing is, the regular story-telling, here-is-a-family part of the play is compelling, moving, and thought-provoking--all those things you want a play to be (or I want a play to be, anyway). The characters are interesting, the story line unusual, the stakes high. I cared. A lot.

If, like an old-time critic, I had had to write about The Sea Concerto directly after seeing it, I have no idea what I would have said. I'm glad I had time to think about it and also glad, as always, that the Flux Theatre Ensemble exists.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, fourth row)

*This review originally misstated who did the sound design. I apologize to Megan “Deets” Culley.

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