In these financially troubled times, a theater risks its very existence every time it decides to be the first to produce a brand new play. Yet here in Michigan – the state hardest hit by the recession – theatergoers are blessed to live in a community where its non-profit theaters are willing to take chances on untested works, oftentimes written by equally untested playwrights. (Which, if you think about it, is somewhat ironic, given the lack of mainstream attention – and state funding – the arts receive here!) The results, of course, are mixed; some attract large crowds and are considered for major awards and future productions, while others quietly disappear and never return.
Personally, as a theater critic, I love the chance to sit in a dark theater and watch as a heretofore untold story unfolds before my eyes. Even better is a smartly written work that delivers an ending I don’t expect – and which keeps me thinking about it long after the actors have taken their final bows. And that’s exactly what I experienced during and after the opening night performance of “Love Bombing After The Earthquake” by Demetri Vacratsis at The Furniture Factory near Wayne State University.
Produced by Breathe Art Theatre Project, “Love Bombing” is the company’s first-ever world premiere. Based in Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, the 5-year-old company specializes in contemporary works, which certainly describes Vacratsis’ powerful script.
The story opens in 2013, one year after an earthquake that registered 8.8 on the Richter Scale devastated an unnamed community in North America. While Vacratsis hints at the societal and political fallout of the disaster, his focus is on the arrest of an honorably discharged army officer who may or may not have knowledge regarding the murder of a major government contractor the night before by a paramilitary team – the fourth such event in recent weeks. Tomas (Kevin Young) claims to know nothing about it, yet Norman Brown (Andrew Huff), the special interrogator assigned to the case, certainly believes otherwise.
Meanwhile, Tomas’ estranged wife, Lia (Shannon Ferrante), is still unable to function after the quake-caused death of their 4-year-old daughter, and is now living with a sympathetic lesbian (Caroline Price) who likewise lost her wife on that fateful day.
The brutal interrogation takes a turn for the worse when a surprise witness – Tomas’ fling from the night before – is revealed and reportedly links Tomas to the murder.
And what follows is one of the most gripping nights of theater I’ve experienced all season, with a stunning ending I never expected. (I smugly thought I had it figured out, only to discover how wrong I was! His ending was much better and far more satisfying!)
The script is at its best when it is focused on the two men and the deadly game of cat and mouse they play. The dialogue is crisp and tightly focused, the characters are fully drawn, and important details are served in tantalizing dribbles. (Only one of Norman’s monologues towards the end of the play could be trimmed or cut altogether, as it doesn’t really provide any new insight.)
The women, however, aren’t nearly as interesting or as well-delineated by the playwright. This is especially true of Lia, who does little to move the story along except to serve as a prop on which a late, major plot revelation hangs, or as a visual and emotional anchor for the audience to latch on to.
Vacratsis completes his vision by also serving as the script’s director. His pacing is superb, particularly in every scene between Tomas and Norman. Here, his work with Young and Huff is carefully crafted, with the beats rising and falling in total harmony with the dialogue. And the emotional impact they deliver together is unforgettable.
Why? Because Young and Huff are in total synch with one another throughout the show, with spot-on performances that both compliment and contrast each other.
Huff’s character is the far-more dynamic of the two. Is he crazy? Or is much of what he says and does simply to scare Tomas into cooperating with him? You’re never sure, thanks to the fine line Huff draws with his portrayal.
Young, on the other hand, gives a much-more nuanced performance. You’re never sure what Tomas is thinking – nor do you know whether or not he’s telling the truth.
Both, therefore, expertly drive the show to its unexpected conclusion.
Lights (by Sergio Forest and Valerie Bonasso) and sound (Young and Bonasso) are equally important characters, and both generally serve the show well.
An artsy opening, though – which I presume is meant to represent the earthquake – didn’t work for me. Partially because its style didn’t match the concept of the rest of the show, but also because it grouped the four characters around a single table that created a formal link among them that didn’t exist at the time of the earthquake. As such, it created an expectation that didn’t play out as the story unfolded.
‘Love Bombing After The Earthquake’
Breathe Art Theatre Project at The Furniture Factory, 4126 3rd St., Detroit. Friday-Saturday through May 2, plus Sundays April 25 and May 2. $20. 248-982-4121. http://www.breathearttheatre.com
Then at Mackenzie Hall, 3277 Sandwich St., Windsor, Ontario. Friday-Saturday May 7-8. $20. 519-255-7600 http://www.breathearttheatre.com