Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review - Sing To Me Now - Little Lifeboats - Best Script I’ve Read In Years, and a Production to Match - 5 Stars

Be honest, aren’t you a little curious about a play that includes a climax where a woman delivers an inspirational speech, and sings, to a urinal?  (You should be.)

“Citizens, supplicants, creatures of want…”

I have been waiting for this play to be produced since I first read it almost two years ago.  It’s an enormous relief when something turns out to be just as great as you hoped it was going to be.  Iris Dauterman’s script Sing To Me Now is easily the best new play I’ve read in the last ten years.  The works of Deborah Yarchun run a close second.  Everything else I like comes in a distant third.  I was afraid I might be getting my hopes up, that no actual production could be as good as the feeling I had when I read the script.  Fear not.  Everyone involved with the Little Lifeboats production of Sing To Me Now loves the script just as much as I do.  And they deliver that love through the script back to the audience.  This was the production I was most excited to see this year when I learned it was going to be on the fall calendar, and it was worth the wait.  (I’m going to go on about it for a while, but honestly, you should just go.  Trust me.  You’ll like it, too.)

“They’re kind of hard to miss.  Dreams are like fingerprints or the smell of someone’s skin.”

For a variety of reasons, a lot of my time is spent reading new plays.  I try to be an optimistic soul and give every new play the benefit of the doubt and an open mind on page 1.  This is not always a rewarding practice.  There are a lot of bad plays out there.  There are even more adequate to mediocre plays out there.  There are a handful of good ones.  Only very rarely do you read a great one.  Not all plays can be great plays, but I wish more plays failed valiantly trying to swing for the fences than settling for just stumbling along toward an average conclusion.  It can get you down.  It can lower your standards.  And then you get one of those great plays in your hands, and it reminds you why you love theater, and that fantastic writing exists - that words have real power in the hands of someone who knows how to use them.  Iris Dauterman’s Sing To Me Now is a great play.  It’s a funny play, full of love and heartache.

“Their brains are tiny, their subconsciouses are unreliable, and their memories are as durable as tissue paper.”

Calliope (Dana Lee Thompson), the last surviving Muse, puts out a call to the universe for an assistant to help with the workload.  Requests for ideas and inspiration come flooding in to her office every day via paper airplanes. (Said paper airplanes sail back and forth through the audience to the stage throughout the play so watch your head - I took one in the shoulder.)  She needs to go out with her basket every day and gather up random ideas from the river of human thought into jars which light up inside.  These jarred ideas get released back out into the world to those who need them.  Calliope once had eight sisters to help carry the load.  Now she’s on her own.

“This is where they come to see us.  What will they think if we just let it burn?”

A human in her dream state answers the call, but Calliope has her doubts about Yankee (Cate Jackson).  Calliope calls her Yankee because she’s from the USA, and bemoans that no help is often preferable to American help.  But Yankee wins her over.  Yankee also catches the eye of Calliope’s neighbor Morpheus, or Mo (Stephanie Johnson), the god of sleep and dreams.

“Have you ever knocked on a door when you’re not sure anyone’s there?  Have you ever knocked on that door for 3,000 years?”

In addition to catching up on the inspiration workload, Calliope needs to regularly check in with her mother Mnemosyne (Rachel Flynn), god of memory.  Only Mnemosyne’s memory has come a little unstuck in time.  (Losing eight of your nine children can do that to a person.)  She can be with Calliope in the present, or she might be mistaking her for one of her sisters.  Everything that’s happened before is either happening again or about to happen.  She’s living both the past and the present at the same time.  (This, of course, is a delightfully cagey way to serve up a metaphor for dementia.  It’s astonishing reading on the page, and Flynn really knocks it out of the park in performance.)

“You of all people should know how little a god can do.  We keep the lights on.”

Calliope also keeps running across her uncle Hades (Robb Kruegger), god of the underworld, who knows all the secrets of death and the afterlife but can’t reveal them.  So Calliope may believe that her sisters are on another plane of existence, but she has no way to reach them, or confirm this.  Hades could provide comfort, but it’s not really his job, and it might also screw up the laws of time and space.

“I miss her, and I hate her.  I don’t know which feeling is gonna win, and that scares me.”

Iris Dauterman, the playwright, is fascinated by trauma, how people deal with it, survive it, bury it or process it.  I didn’t fully understand the connection between the writer’s preoccupation with trauma and the script Sing To Me Now when I first read it, though I was entranced by the story on any number of other levels.  Then the 2016 presidential election happened.  And now I appreciate the play on a whole new level, and see Dauterman’s trauma fascination all over it.  One of the marks of a great play is the ways you can appreciate it differently over time.  Sing To Me Now feels even more immediate to me now in its meditations on the resilience, stupidity, and beauty of the human race than it did when I read it almost two years ago.

“She’s in the library.  Her hands are full of ashes.”

Also, I hate when storytellers use suicide casually, as just another plot device, and don’t reckon with the mindset of the person committing the act, or the impact on the people left behind.  Here, too, Dauterman defies my resistance as an audience member.  Now, the fact that there’s an established afterlife, and the person in question is on a mission in the underworld, kind of takes some sting out of it.  A suicide in real life, with no assurance of redemption, would be a lot messier, and perhaps more honest.  But it’s part of the play’s highwire act and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work for me anyway.

“How do you know if someone wants to kiss you back?”
“You don’t always.”
“That sounds terrifying.”

The whole cast is wonderful.  I mentioned Flynn earlier, but I have to call out Dana Lee Thompson’s brilliance specifically because the play would not work without her as Calliope.  She shoulders the task of being the center of this play from start to finish with great power and grace.  Her emotional range is a real roller coaster throughout, and she has the audience laughing and crying right along with her.  Sing To Me Now has a lot of heart across the whole story and cast of characters and everyone involved really digs in and delivers this, none more so than Thompson.

“He should really settle down.  There aren’t that many single gods anymore.”

Cate Jackson as Yankee takes your typical plucky underdog character and gives her real dimension.  She’s clearly a human out of her depth among the gods but she gamely tries to hold her own nonetheless.  Her budding romance with Morpheus is made all the more interesting by the production’s choice to cast the male role with a female actor - Stephanie Johnson.  Everyone addresses Morpheus as a man, nobody tries to pretend this is an intentional lesbian romance.  It’s just two people meeting and building a relationship.  How you see that is up to you.  It’s a nice touch, and adds a new dimension to a script I didn’t think had any more dimensions to add.  Robb Krueger’s Hades is a combination of mischievous and world-weary that makes for some great comedy - and without him, we’d get no happy ending.

“She knew they were all going to burn.  She just didn’t want them to die alone.”

Just as a side note, I don’t think we can call it a coincidence any more that the productions I’m most impressed with and engaged by right now are all directed and written by women, with women at the center of the action.  There’s Sing To Me Now from Little Lifeboats, written by Iris Dauterman and directed by Victoria Pyan; there’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. from Frank Theatre, written by Alice Birch and directed by Wendy Knox; there’s The Nether from Jungle Theater, written by Jennifer Haley and directed by Casey Stangl (and while we’re at it Lillian Hellman’s Watch On The Rhine under Lisa Peterson’s direction is kicking some serious ass at the Guthrie, too).

“Because you have so much potential.  You can create so much beauty, and then you just - don’t.”

The new Crane Studio space is still a work in progress.  It’s a great little space, and perfect for this story (thanks in no small part to Meagan Kedrowski’s whimsical set design).  There will be a light grid in the near future, but the lack of one now limits what Mitchell Fraisier can do with the lighting design. And the Crane’s hardly sound proof at the moment, and there is another show going on on the mainstage just across the hall at the same time.  (Thankfully, the other show’s a long one act, so it’s done before the big emotional material in act two kicks in.  Still, I admired the cast even more in those moments when they had to block out incoming noise from the other show and continue telling their own story.  The audience hangs in there with them.)  Like I say, a work in progress, as the run continues, the building no doubt evolves, too.  The only design not impacted by the Crane Studio’s embryonic state was Lisa Conley’s inventive costume design.  Conley gets some lively and colorful variations out of going along with the expectation of ancient Greek gods being outfitted in togas, and keep an eye out for Yankee’s amusing sleepy dragon slippers.

“Does goat cheese really make the world a better place?”

Best new play with a production to match.  If you like theater, treat yourself to Little Lifeboats’ presentation of Sing To Me Now.  It’s a delight.  (As mom frequently says to me at Fringe shows she really loves, “if I could have six stars to rate a show, I’d give it six.”) (runs through October 22, 2017 at the Crane Studio)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

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