Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Flu Season"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents Copyright 2006 Erik Sherman

"The Flu Season"

Reviewed by Erik Sherman

“The Flu Season”

By Will Eno
Director: Jeffrey Cranor

Set Designer: Jeffrey Cranor
Lighting Designer: Amae Kurre
Costumes/Props: Jen Leavitt
Sound Design: Brad Berridge
Technical Director: Heather Hershey
Set Designer: Catherine King

Prologue................................................. Mat Bussler
Epilogue................................................. Al Clement
Doctor................................................... Marty Norden
Man....................................................... Adam Smith
Nurse..................................................... Patricia K. Mew
Woman.................................................. Jen Campbell

Those with a taste for postmodernism (Or since it’s recent would it be post postmodernism?) will enjoy The Flu Season by Will Eno. Typically I’m a bit shy of the entire self-referential movement that seemed to come spilling forth after such ground-breaking playwrights as Ionesco and Wilder. Usually the genre provides works that are entirely too clever while they gush forth in paroxysms of navel-gazing.

And early in the play, that’s what Eno seems to be doing, with a Man and Woman being treated – apparently for advanced cases of social disaffection – in a mental hospital by a Doctor and Nurse. The entire play happens in fragments, each introduced by a dueling chorus of two: the optimistic Prologue and cynical Epilogue. Eventually one of the characters turns out to be a playwright; there’s a tragic occurrence, egged on by flittering human whim; and true love wins out, some times and kinda. Or maybe not.

But if you share my aversion to plays “all about us,” willingly suspend that leitmotif. Eno is far more intricate and subtle in his work, using, I think, the narrators as a way of discussing how people approach life, going from the great expectations we set to the emotional Dickensian slums we too often eventually choose for dwelling. The four characters in the hospital seem to run from mildly wacky to deeply at odds with the world and cut off from other people. Yet they keep trying to find ways to reach out, and sometimes they succeed. That is when the mechanism of the commentators becomes effective, with one showing all the hope people have for situations where they should know better and for the bitterness and resignation that can come when their dreams smack into reality. By the end of the production, the comments on theater and playwriting become observations of general human behavior, as all try to write plays of our lives but come up against the unhappy grittiness that we will never escape.

Eno’s use of language is itself fascinating. He gives characters poetic phrases that sound as though they just shouldn’t work for being overwrought – and yet do. Then he fits these expansive moments into a frame of stuttering incoherence and inanity punctuated with moments of absolute stillness, so that the dialog moves in fits and lurches. As a result, he generates some wonderful mental images, yet pulls back enough so as not to weary the audience.

I was most taken with the performance of Jen Campbell. As Woman, she largely found and stayed on the difficult emotional path from isolation to love and then to abandonment – of various sorts. The brittle snapping, wanting something and not wanting, then being hurt, trying to hold on, and ultimately pushing away her dreams has a largely true ring. (I attended the opening night, and so did not catch the production after it had settled in to a comfortable rhythm). Man was Adam Smith – and if there was ever a name more apt to play an Everyman, I can’t think of it. He was good, creating a tension between wanting to belong to someone else and being brutally willing to cast people aside when they get too close. Patricia K. Mew (Nurse) had the oddest wackiness to her, an overstated earnestness constantly distracted by one thought and then another, the sort who could walk through a gulag and wish everyone she passed a cheery “Good day!” Marty Norden as the Doctor used his background as an academic to provide a good approach, though stumbled a touch in achieve a sense of realism that would have helped him work better with the other cast members. Mat Bussler had an overly impassioned enthusiasm that lent Prologue an edge, sounding slightly crazed in his unabashed fervor. Yet he kept using the same hand gestures, which took the performance and made it slightly cartoonish. Al Clement had the same problem as Epilogue, holding his hands in a way that was stiff and soon predictable. But then, it might have been opening night nerves.

Director Jeffrey Cranor handled the lurching script well, keeping the action moving when it easily could have devolved into a confusing jumble. This production was a first for the Present Theater Project, the child of both Cranor and Smith. Theater groups often come and go, but I hope this one will tarry at least for a bit to see what it is capable of doing. It was also my first experience of the A.P.E. gallery and production space above Thorne’s Market in Northampton – a delightful and non-traditional open and cheerful space that worked well for the production.

"The Flu Season" (till 20 May)
A.P.E.
Thorne’s Market, 150 Main Street, NORTHAMPTON MA
1 (866)811-4111

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