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By Jenn McKee
One of the best creative writing workshop teachers I ever had used a graphic that looked like car’s gas gauge to address a key point in storytelling – namely, that an author must always navigate the tricky divide that lies between offering too much information and not enough information.
If you provide too much, the reader will not be engaged (there’s nothing left for him/her to figure out), and they’ll be overwhelmed with so much detail that they won’t be able to glean what’s important; if you provide too little, your frustrated reader will feel as though she’s desperately trying to fit together a dozen random pieces from a 500 piece puzzle.
That teacher’s graphic popped back into my head while watching the premiere of Kelly Rossi’s “Calypso” at The Abreact Performance Space on Friday night. The short play – with a running time just shy of an hour – focuses on a man (David Schoen) who’s trying to interview an enigmatic “life skills” teacher (Connie Cowper) about her work, and the self-sustaining community she’s built, when he calls her out as a witch and starts hearing another woman’s voice (Jaclyn Strez) that frightens and threatens him.
Although the teacher explains to the man that she can’t hear the other woman’s voice, the two witches have a history, and they eventually confront each other about their past, their choices and the interviewer’s role in all this.
When the teacher returns to the interview, the man reveals his true identity, as well as his feelings of invisibility and loneliness, to her; but the dye is cast for an inevitable showdown between the three of them.
Without a doubt, ambiguity can be a useful storytelling tool. Audiences like playing an active role in a narrative, which is what happens when they’re left to make connections, and fill in some blanks, themselves. But “Calypso,” I’m afraid, simply raises too many unanswered questions, so that rather than engaging its audience, it holds them at arm’s length.
The palpable awkwardness that Cowpen and Schoen achieve in the opening scene provides a promising start, though. (As a journalist, I understand well the frustration of interviewing someone who offers nothing but short, cryptic, un-illuminating answers.) Cowper projects a character who’s calmly certain of her (maddening) responses and cooperation, while Schoen – though his response to hearing the woman’s threatening voice gets redundant – plays a man who’s clearly shaken by this woman who threatens the world, values and laws with which he’s familiar.
Director Lyndsay Michalik gleans moments of levity from the two characters’ awkwardness, and despite The Abreact’s small stage, the play never feels static. Yet at the same time, we never get full access to any of the characters, either.
The teacher talks about her allegiance to the laws of nature, but I got no palpable sense of what that means, or why she might be severely punished for it. The “voice” woman, meanwhile, expresses a desire to exist in a world free of men – but where is her world, exactly? Is it ours? Or a supernatural other-world? The man admits the desk where he sits isn’t his – whose is it? His colleagues have left him behind, yet he honors his instructions to not leave, no matter what. Why would he still obey this order when the second woman’s voice mortally terrifies him?
And regarding the title, are we to associate the teacher, or the second woman, with the goddess who held Odysseus captive when he wanted to return home? And if so, to what end?
I have lots of other questions, too – particularly about the play’s jarring conclusion – but you get the idea. With “Calypso,” Rossi has the seed of play that examines our fear of a (super)natural, “off the grid” world that could exist parallel to our own; but at this stage, it seems like a sapling that needs more nurturing and support before it can thrive.
The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette Blvd., #113, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through May 8, plus Sunday, April 25. Admission by donation. 313-378-5404. http://www.theabreact.com