And Then They Fell
Reviewed by Gray Palmer|
Brimmer St. Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre
Through October 2
Anyone who has run away from home will recognize the adventures in Tira Palmquist’s And Then They Fell, now receiving a world premiere at the Atwater Village Theatre. I’m going to recommend this play as affirmative politics — which I’ll explain in a moment — even though I have questions about some of the stagecraft in the production.
The story opens in a trailer park. The principal character is Jordan Matthews (Kacie Rogers/Chelsea Boyd — two complete casts alternate in the performance schedule). She is a senior in high school whose mother has just been arrested for repeated drunk driving and placed into a lock-down detox program. Jordan is informed about her mother’s situation by Dwayne (Tim Venable/Ian Madeira), her mother’s sometime boyfriend. Jordan has no father in the picture and no relatives, not surprising when we finally meet the difficult mother. Dwayne also announces that he is moving in (and we gather that he’s probably skipping out on the rent at his former residence). The trailer is dark. The electric has been turned off — it seems that this is not an unfamiliar occurance. Jordan has no job, no money, and now an alarming new “guardian.”
At school before the other students arrive, Jordan takes a hot shower in the gym’s locker room. A cleaning-woman has let her in, even though it’s against the rules, and as they talk, she gives to Jordan an old copy of National Geographic. The magazine features an article about a mass bird death event on New Year’s Eve in Arkansas, a mystery that becomes an obsession for Jordan.
Next we meet Cal Washington (Lily Nicksay/J.J. Hawkins), a student called to the principal’s office to be disciplined after a fight. When the principal addresses Cal as “Callista,” he erupts in anger. Cal is transgender, identifying as male. He insists that if an authority must be called, the administration should call the police rather than his father. (We later discover that Cal is living at a squat with some musicians.) Then he escapes from the office as soon as he is left alone.
Jordan and Cal meet at a busstop. He is panhandling for busfare. She gives him coins. It’s change from the purchase of a bucket of KFC, Dwayne’s dinner. She also gives him a piece of chicken. (She has recognized Cal from Geometry and AP English classes.)
The worst quickly happens to Jordan at home. Dwayne will only give money to Jordan in exchange for sex.
So she runs away. Then when Jordan is trying to sleep in a park, Cal finds her. And for both of them, an almost immediate romantic attachment is formed. Rogers and Nicksay are wonderful here.
At this point, playwright Palmquist attains a lyric runaway flight: There are scenes overnight in a 24 hour diner; of being rousted out of a park by a cop; sleepless attempts to do homework out-of-doors; sharing food from a dumpster; dreaming up impossible lines of escape (a “Bird Death Roadtrip”); trying to steal keys to a car; scenes of frantic bad-faith communication with adults; of eternal-seeming periods in urban non-places; moments of sudden attachment when openness is shown, or of sudden relief at simple kindness. And there is the illusion that bad feelings are not passible. And there is the often-confirmed belief that grown-ups are mean.
The play is very like Neo-Verismo, or a current American stage version of Neo-Realism. I wondered sometimes whether the Brimmer St. Theatre Company had also followed the practice of the Neo-Realist film directors by casting non-actors in some roles. That is not a bad practice per se. It can be wonderful. Everything depends on direction — but it’s very difficult to manage onstage. And the reason for my impression is that a great deal of the stage action is not quite convincing. The main problem (but not the only one) lies with anticipation. Some dialogue exchanges, but not all, are completely implausible without both speakers really listening and responding to each other. At the first matinee performance, there was so much inappropriate overlapping of dialogue, it was evident that the actors were not listening. There was a preponderance of focus on indicating the “shape and noise” of their characters’ often extreme emotions rather than playing together. Under those conditions, we get the ideas of a scene, usually, but it’s not convincing. Perhaps the matinee was just wrong-footed — it happens.
The production is smartly conceived to be performed by five actors, with two of the cast members taking on a list of at least seven characters. The Ensemble roles are played by Jaquita Ta’le/Faith Imafidon and Ben Fuller/Brad Harris.
The direction is by Amy K. Harmon. She has worked out a fluid use of the space and design (set and lights by Katrina Coulouridas) to quickly configure the story’s many different locations. Throughout much of the show, the interior of the trailer-home remains upstage behind a scrim, framed by a proscenium, rendering “home” as a picture at a slight remove. And Then They Fell is full of animated video projection (designed by the very good Andy Broomell) — street signs that establish location, doodles that might be on a bookcover, rain, and those birds, thousands of them.
Now, as to the affirmative politics: Three quarters of LA homeless youth are black or Latino/Latina, and by some estimates, 40 % of them identify as LGBT or Q. A sympathetic awareness of their lives through realistic narrative — that’s not an insuperable reach for a liberal theater audience. But attendance at this show will also make a material difference. Brimmer St. Theatre Co. has partnered with My Friend’s Place, a service organization that provides “wellness and educational resources” to Los Angeles homeless youth. Every dollar of ticket sales from And Then They Fell has been pledged to them.
Brimmer St. Theatre Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Thu.-Fri. 8 pm.; Sat.-Sun. 3 pm. & 8 pm.; through October 2. (617) 953-8544. brimmerstreet.org Running time: one hour and 20 minutes without intermission.