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Brave choice, engaging debut by Threefold

Imagine waking up one morning in a room you don't recognize and finding a hand on your breast that belongs to a similarly middle-aged stranger sleeping next to you. And worse, you have no idea who you are, and you have no recollection of why you and this man are alone in what is – otherwise – an idyllic setting.
Such is the starting point of "A Body of Water" by Lee Blessing, the inaugural production of Threefold Productions based at the Mix Studio Theater in Ypsilanti. Its selection is rather surprising, since many new theaters choose to open with a popular comedy, a safe musical or something not-too cerebral. Instead, Artistic Director Sarah Lucas brings to life a genre-defying, three-person drama that says much but reveals little. And the resultant production is sure to spark a lively debate once the house lights come up and the audience heads home – which, quite frankly, is how I love my visits to the theater to end!
Dressed in bathrobes they find in a closet, the woman (Brenda Lane) and man (Lee Stille) meet in the living room of what appears to be a vacation home surrounded mostly by water. Are they married, they wonder? (Neither wears a wedding ring.) Secret lovers? Acquaintances? Or strangers, perhaps? With no memory of their past lives except for brief, inconsequential flashes, what brought them together, they ask? And why here? The arrival of a woman carrying bagels may shed light on their questions. But what Wren (Luna Alexander) tells them is far worse than they expected. But as the day progresses and Wren's tale changes, they – and the audience – are left to wonder what's true and what's not. (Audiences may also wonder why it takes so long for the man and woman to dig into the purse and wallet Wren provides them, which would ultimately reveal their names. Or why fear seems to drive their actions and responses more than common sense would; the two are supposedly well-educated professionals. But to do otherwise would have resulted in a much shorter and different play.)
If Blessing's story reminds you of Ionesco's "The Chairs" or Sartre's "No Exit," you're not alone; both are frequent comparisons, thanks to the script's surrealistic and absurdist underpinnings. Yet the setting also seems to echo a drawing room farce, while the search for truth is a twist on a locked room detective story. Whatever its pedigree, the resulting script may not fully satisfy the discriminating patron who likes every question answered and the resolution tied up in a nice, neat package. But no one can quibble much with the artistic choices made by Lucas in bringing this complicated story to life.
With its roots deeply embedded in Eastern Michigan University's theater department – much of the production team earned their degrees there recently or are current students – I half expected Threefold Productions to populate its cast with equally young actors. (Such is often the case with new companies created by fresh-out-of-college artists; casting often comes from within their close circle of young friends.) Lucas, however, defied expectation by casting age-appropriate and experienced actors for all three roles.
Stille, a professor of theater and performance studies at EMU and 2011 Wilde Award nominee for his excellent work in "Equus" at the Blackbird Theatre, takes his character as written by the playwright – which I have a problem with, if you accept as true Wren's explanation of who he is, plus other factors I won't reveal here – and presents a believable and sympathetic picture of a man who is confused and dazed by the life he wakes up to.
Lane is given far more to work with by the playwright, and she wrings every ounce of emotion out of it.
The toughest role of the show, however, belongs to Alexander. Wren is a character that would be easy to dislike, but Alexander finds a path that fully explores the emotional roller coaster Wren faces every time she encounters the couple. While she may be snarky at times and almost heartless at others, Wren's motivations become clear as the story progresses, and Alexander's portrayal always rings true.
That is, if everything Wren tells the couple isn't a lie!
Direction by Lucas – who made her professional directorial debut with the aforementioned production of "Equus" – ebbs and flows in synchronicity with the script, with the powerful and emotional peaks among the highlights of the show. Also of note are the scene changes, which are organic and interesting to watch. My only quibble was the result of my choice of where to sit in the Mix's intimate black box space. With seating on three sides of the floor-level stage area, I sat on the far end of the middle section. Little did I suspect, however, that I would spend far too much time staring directly at the back (or front) of an actor, who blocked my view of whatever action was taking place on stage. (The only other person sitting in my row was similarly impacted; there were a handful of times I noticed he leaned far to his left to observe the on-stage action.)
Dustin Miller's Lego-like set pieces surprised and impressed me, while John Diorio's sound design is so real and effective that I thought one particular car sound came from the street outside the theater.
Lights by Emily Clarkson generally serve the show well. But a few light changes made little sense. Miscues perhaps?
As the story closes, we hear the same lines we heard at the opening, which leaves us to ponder one thing: Is anything we just witnessed "true?" That's for each theatergoer to decide, of course. But what I can tell you is this: Threefold Productions' impressive debut bodes well for this young and energetic theater company. And I look forward to what promises to be a very welcome addition to Metro Detroit's ever-changing professional theater community.

REVIEW:
'A Body of Water'
Threefold Productions at Mix Studio Theater, 8 N. Washington St., Ypsilanti. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 4, plus Wednesday, Jan. 25. $18. 734-778-0627. http://www.threefoldproductions.org



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