Gadfly Theatre’s production of Tira Palmquist’s play And Then They Fell. Unlike most of the people in the audience, I’d already read this new play. So I knew what I was in for. Part of me was just hoping that in the time since I’d read it, due to lessons learned from other productions, the playwright might have changed the ending. Nope.
“Just you and me and the radio and the wind, and no one will be able to stop us.”
What kills me is that I’m a huge fan of Tira Palmquist and her work, and yet this is the first review of one of her plays I have to write. I think she’s an enormously gifted playwright. She writes about important things in beautiful and accessible ways. She’s had some productions at major regional theaters around the country and seems like she’s one of those writers who’s poised to really break out - writing about the right things in the right ways at just the right time.
“The terminal velocity of a bird without flight is…”
Because of her local ties, she submitted three plays to Workhouse Theatre Company when I was helping run their new play reading series, the Greenhouse Project. We ended up doing readings of two of them, Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake. If you ever get a chance to see either play, you should. I look forward to some local theater finally picking them up and running with them the same way theaters in other parts of the country already have. Two Degrees blends grief and the concern over global warming into a compelling and personal play. Ten Mile Lake brings a headstrong adult daughter and her unforgiving father together at the old family cabin as his health begins to fail in a play that resists sentimentality in amusing ways. The first play Tira Palmquist sent us was And Then They Fell. Even though the play didn’t connect with us, the writing certainly did, so we asked for more and got the wonderful payoff of reading Two Degrees and Ten Mile Lake. So when I learned Gadfly Theatre Productions was doing And Then They Fell, I felt strongly that I should go, not just because of Tira but also because of Gadfly.
“Is God trying to tell us something?”
Gadfly is a theater devoted not just to putting queer stories and queer artists on stage, but to developing and supporting new work, and living local playwrights (heck, they’ve even done a short play of mine). Even though our aesthetics don’t always line up (which probably means I’m not as good a feminist as I’d like to be yet), I want to be supportive of Gadfly in return for all the important work I feel they’re doing. Also, I hadn’t yet seen anything in their new home at the Fox Egg Gallery yet, so for that reason as well I was curious.
“I’m trying to help you. I need to hear your side of the story.”
In her director’s note, Gadfly co-artistic director Cassandra Snow said she, too, had originally passed on And Then They Fell after reading it, partly because her number one rule for theater is - no dead girls, no dead queers. I am fully behind such a rule. Mostly because, let’s face it, you can count on popular culture as a whole to give you more than enough dead girls, more than enough dead queers - that is, when they portray girls or queers at all. (Personally, if I can joke about a piece of art - even my own, using a variation on one of my favorite satirical movie quotes, "I love my dead gay son" - then something's wrong.) So if you’re a theater like Gadfly, avoiding adding more to that particular pile is a great guiding principle. For And Then They Fell, Gadfly decided to break that rule. Though that’s unfortunate, I can understand the temptation on a couple of different levels.
“Trauma of an unknown origin.”
The first draw, of course, is Tira’s writing - her way with language, her humor, her compelling characters. The second - and really the primary strength of And Then They Fell - is the central relationship of the play between two young outcasts just trying to survive high school - a teenage girl named Jordan (Mindy Vang) and a trans teenage boy (pre-everything) named Cal (formerly Calista) (Adele Bolier).
“Looking up at the sky that wouldn’t hold them.”
Cal has already been kicked out by their parents for asserting their identity as a boy rather than a girl. Cal crosses paths with Jordan as her own home life begins to unravel. Jordan’s mother Crystal (Starla Larson) hasn’t ever been on the wagon long enough to fall off, and has now gotten herself some mandatory time in both detox and jail due to the latest in a string of DUI arrests. Crystal thinks the best thing for Jordan is to send over Crystal’s ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Troy Stolp) to look after her daughter. Like so many of Crystal’s life decisions, this is another unbelievably bad idea. Because Dwayne looks at 17 year old Jordan as a younger, fresher version of her mother, and that can’t end well for anybody (so, naturally, it doesn’t).
“I don’t know who you are, but you’re not my child.”
When Jordan can’t take life with Dwayne anymore and hits the streets, Cal takes her under their wing and tries to help her avoid doing anything stupid or dangerous. Given the “dead girl, dead queer” warning we’re given in the program, it’s not a spoiler alert to tell you that Cal is only partially successful. Given that same warning, I was a little afraid I’d forgotten something or there’d been a rewrite and we might be subjected to both. We are, blessedly, not. But the human cost of this story is high enough, no worries.
“We don’t have to tell your mom about this, right?”
The third draw for the script is Jordan’s fascination with the sudden death of a whole flock of birds in a small town in Arkansas. New Year’s Eve, a whole flock of birds just falls out of the sky. Not shot, not poisoned, their bodies showing internal injuries more like they’d been beaten to death. This happened two years in a row on New Year’s Eve 2011 and 2012. Other mass bird death phenomena have occurred elsewhere in recent years around the world, for various reasons. The metaphorical link to how society has seemingly abandoned its children, many of whom then fall victim to any number of unfortunate ends, is a powerful one. The poetic turns of phrase associated with birds in the script, as well as sound effects, and the surprisingly simple but effective stage trick Gadfly pulls off of a single black feather dropping out of the sky at key moments, all work really well. Getting the metaphor to stick the landing is a little trickier, because neither the source of the metaphor or the play itself really fully deliver on their promise in this regard. But you can feel it just out of reach. As an audience member, you keep trying to will the play to get across that particular finish line, but it falls short.
“When you’re eighteen you can jump off a cliff if that’s what you want.”
The cast, which also includes Kjertina Whiting taking the spotlight as a number of quite different supporting characters, all do really solid work. Vang and Bolier as the duo of Jordan and Cal are especially winning. The problem right now, and this isn’t really the production’s fault, is that the play doesn’t really give them enough room to grow. They get a significant amount of stage time comparatively, but I’d argue that the play is currently too short and too crowded. Right now, even with an intermission wedged in (which - other than for purposes of relieving people’s bladders - you don’t really need), the play is barely over 90 minutes. So much happens so fast that the characters don’t get a lot of room to breathe.
“And they keep falling,
Also, Jordan and Cal are original creations, but all the adults around them are people we’ve seen before. They’re almost stereotypes - the junkie mom, the lecherous boyfriend leering at the mom’s teenage daughter, the well-meaning school official with their hands tied, the friendly but feckless squatter anarchists, the abusive cop, the colorful waitress at the local diner, the TV preacher, the lovable school janitor. In a telling moment, Cal recounts to Jordan the story of the day their father kicked them out of the house and disowned them as their child. That adult character, too, is a trope, but in Cal’s storytelling, they came alive for us in the audience. We didn’t need to meet them or see it happen. It was more important to see how it affected Cal. The actor delivers. If I were a dramaturg on this script, I’d encourage the writer to take the play, scrap everyone else and just focus on Jordan and Cal, and make it a full length. The characters and relationship are so rich, you can get a full play out of that. Those supporting players can easily be sketched in as stories they tell one another. Of course, that means a different ending (but let’s face it, I’m lobbying for that anyway). Right now, it feels like these characters and their relationship are being squandered in material that doesn’t live up to their potential (I get the same feeling about the cast in this production as well).
“Being sober doesn’t really suit her.”
Two other things related more to the production than the script are getting in the way of the story right now. One of them feels like sloppiness, the other one feels like a failure of nerve. First, the sloppiness. This has to do with scene shifts. And Then They Fell takes place in a little over a dozen scenes and almost as many locations. The Fox Egg Gallery is limited in terms of usable space but even what they had probably could have been better utilized. Since writers give an audience credit for an imagination and suspension of disbelief which can handle multiple locations sharing the same space, then directors (as a species, not just in this instance) need to start treating scene changes as connective tissue in their storytelling rather than something that happens while you’re waiting for the next scene to start.
“I like to hear you talk.”
Look at one scene, look at the scene that follows it. Do they have a character in common? Great, have that character walk out of the one scene into the next. Have the lights follow them and let the other character fade into the dark and walk away. If instead the set of characters in the next scene is completely different from the set of characters in the current scene, rather than stopping everything dead for scene shifts between every single scene, maybe leave the setting for both scenes on the stage at the same time and just shift the lights, new actors walking on talking while old actors walk off to get ready for the next scene. Choose to move as few things as possible, as little as possible. Keep the momentum going. Don’t allow the audience to check out on you.
“Unless someone’s beating the sh*t out of you, it’s better than out here.”
Is a bench required for an upcoming scene? Is there a reason it couldn’t already be there off to the side? If it needs to be moved into place, could the character who has to sit on it move it into place, in character rather than neutrally (not because they’re responsible for setting up a bus stop in reality but because we’re watching the human face of a character, and not so much what they’re doing)? If the bench isn’t necessary for the next scene but isn’t in the way, could you just leave it alone? If there are multiple times people need to sit down in different locations, we don’t always need to have a completely different chair every time. Let the characters, dialogue, light and sound set the scene rather than the specificity of the furniture.
“She just seems so sure.”
And I know scenes without dialogue are uncomfortable for an actor, but if there aren’t any lines, don’t allow them to pretend they’re saying something we just can’t hear. Force them to act with their body, most importantly their hands, their face, and if necessary, their hips. Body language. Learn how to use it. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t rush through it as quickly as possible. Linger longer than you think you need to because the audience needs time to take it in and catch up with the visual impression you’re trying to make. This isn’t TV or film, there are no quick cuts - particularly since most of the time there’s going to be a scene shift before and after. Think about flow into and out of those scenes and take your time.
“You’re not exactly a different person but you’ve changed something important.”
Now for the failure of nerve. One character forces another character to perform oral sex on them in this play. Sexual assault, plain and simple. Statutory rape, to boot. (Again, there is a warning prior to the show, so this is hardly a spoiler.) I don’t agree with sexual assault of a minor as a necessary storytelling device in this context, but it’s there in the script. The theater chose to do the script. I’m fairly certain the script doesn’t say, “The lights go down - even though it’s the middle of the day and the rest of the scene is clearly well lit. We hear the man enjoying himself. We hear the girl coughing, no, gagging. In the dark. Then suddenly the lights return and the girl is breaking away from the man and dry heaving all over the stage, disgusted with what she’s done.”
“[This music’s] really angry.”
Here’s the thing. The play doesn’t cut away from the fellatio so that it’s something that happens in between scenes off stage. The theater chose to do the play. This is part of the play. I’m not saying someone actually needs to perform oral sex in front of us. But the play requires a theater to simulate it. We watch a man force a girl to her knees. He should face upstage and block her from our view. But she’s going to have to have her face at a level with his crotch. There is going to need to be movement. He is probably going to have place his hands on the side of her head. She needs to get down on her knees, she needs to get up off her knees. Because the play requires it. The theater chose to do the play. I don’t like it any more than the theater company does. (Heck, I didn’t even want to type the last two paragraphs.) But the theater needs to do what the play requires of it. Is it awkward, uncomfortable, and even triggering for all parties involved? Absolutely. But the theater is telling a story. The theater knew what it was getting into when it read this script and chose to do it. And if the theater doesn’t want to tell that part of the story, then don’t. do. the. play. Find another play. The theater chose the play because it was taking an unflinching look at the way a society fails its children. If the production flinches first, the audience won’t. Chose plays the theater can commit to fully or don’t do them.
“Come July you’ll be praying for a night like this.”
The audience the night I attended was filled with teenage girls. I’d wager a lot of them were there to support their friends in the cast. Part of me was grateful that a lot of their parents seemed to be there with them, though some were there unaccompanied. Good on everybody for supporting live theater, and complicated live theater at that. But I wondered, “What must they be thinking when they watch this?” Because I was also trying to figure that out for myself.
“You got me now.”
I have never seen the point of watching human suffering as a form of entertainment. That just doesn’t seem to be enough of a point for indulging in it. Without a message, I don’t find it cathartic. I can’t watch most horror films, slasher films or torture porn. (In the same vein, the value of most shooter video games escapes me.) If someone is going to suffer and die onstage, I need there to be a reason. And not just, life sucks, and in life people suffer and die. Gee thanks, I know that. Tell me something I don’t know. Tell me something I didn’t bring into the theater with me. Raise my awareness. More importantly, point me toward a solution. In the play, not before and after the play with talkbacks and representatives of community organizations doing good works. In the play. The other stuff is great, but if it’s the only thing justifying the existence of the play, if the play isn’t providing its own context, then the play has failed to fully create a world and explore the options available in it.
“A heavy dark sky letting go a burden of birds.”
By contrast, even though Citizen deals with a thousand injustices and disappointments in a society burdened by institutional racism, Citizen opens your eyes and makes you think, makes you care. That’s not suffering as entertainment, that’s an exploration of suffering that makes a point, that offers hope through knowledge, a way forward, a way out. The specificity of it makes it universal. And Then They Fell often feels generic and unspecific. The things about it that really sing, noted above, chiefly Jordan and Cal, don’t get the room to grow that they need. Partly because it feels too short, partly because it seems to be crowded right now with a lot of unnecessary noise around the edges of the central relationship.
No dead girls. No dead queers.
After And Then They Fell runs its course, I think that rule needs to go back into effect.
Forewarned is forearmed. All that said, I still recommend supporting Tira Palmquist and Gadfly by seeing this production of And Then They Fell. (performing now through March 26, 2017)
3 stars - Recommended
(photo courtesy of Gadfly Theatre Productions; left to right, Mindy Vang (Jordan) and Adele Bolier (Cal)).