By Carolyn Hayes
Jaye Stellini and Jonathan Davidson are among the “Soul Mates” in Magenta Giraffe’s current production at The Abreact Performance Space. Photo: Chuk Nowak
At once simple and complex, Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company’s “Soul Mates” delivers variations on a theme, with a gentle but insistent twist. This world premiere – the first professional production for emerging local playwright Kirsten Knisely – is an ambitious piece that seeks to blend the freedom of isolated two-person vignettes with the intricacy of meticulously planned links that tell a larger story. Here, backed by a sharply considered concept and the evident accord of a gifted ensemble, director Frannie Shepherd-Bates wisely focuses on the rewarding connections of the play’s diverse array of soul mate relationships, allowing the burgeoning web of connectedness to speak for itself.
After ringing a brief foreshadowing knell in the remote past, Knisely pitches forward in time toward the present, via an establishing scene that overtly lays out the play’s conception of its titular theme. These glimpses into other eras prove a heyday for costumer Lauren Montgomery and properties designer Gwen Lindsay that set the tone for the visual richness to follow. Against the marbled backdrop of Lindsay’s neutral scenic design, Montgomery in particular ensures that every inspired and inherent choice says something, filling the all-purpose vacuum of the playing space with satisfying palettes. By necessity, however, the designers reach their zenith early, gloriously constructing a 1980s tween habitat in which a pair of besties (the sweetly contrasting Julia Garlotte and Jaye Stellini) mulls over the meaning of romantic unions and lifelong friendships between turns of “Electronic Mall Madness.”
This scene and others are propelled by a sputtering energy – some of which may have been a byproduct of opening-night fervor, but the drive is clearly ingrained. Gratefully, the ensemble cast finds appropriate outlets through the text, often in scripted moments employing incidental music. Here, sound design by Shepherd-Bates steps up with funny and prescient selections, atmospheric cues, and an undercurrent of strummy warm tunes about connection (featuring locally sourced music by D’Orchestra). In her capacity as director, Shepherd-Bates’s strength is in identifying the relationship dynamics and digging in from the outset; the show’s finest scene work flourishes with Knisely’s ear for effortless dialogue and organic build.
The conventional definition of soul mates is a romantic one, and the play delivers several such relationships in multiple permutations: As mismatched friends with benefits, Stellini plays boldly genuine opposite the boisterously expressive Jonathan Davidson; another stellar scene strikes awkward comic gold, as Garlotte and Matthew Turner Shelton hit it off through a sea of cringe-worthy and cutely lamented faux pas. Yet the production makes a strong case for platonic and familial relationships to have the same import, demonstrated by Davidson and Shelton as different characters in two scenes: one of roommates that brings equal parts humor and high stakes, another of brothers at a critical crossroads of openness, uncertainty and betrayal.
Even as each scene has its own unique feel and standing power, a framework begins to emerge that binds this loose amalgamation of individuals. The payoffs begin lightly and keep the viewer invested in a growing world, but as the character recurrences and links begin to compound and the chronology grows more heavily insistent, a late reveal shows the playwright’s hand in a way that makes baldly apparent her need for the audience to care about the big picture. The risk does bring some emotional satisfaction, but at a price – the effortless flow of solely relationship-focused scenes sags with added weight, culminating in truth bombs, mouthpiece philosophy, and forced absolution that venture to the edge of hackneyed territory.
Ultimately, Shepherd-Bates and company have cultivated a deeply felt series of relationships at intriguing junctures, welling up with comedy and honesty in an evocative cycle. This staging makes evident Knisely’s skill as a playwright, although her strengths of invention and composition are gently undercut by her compulsion for greater personal meaning. As a journey into and through the concept, “Soul Mates” defers to its underlying structure more than is necessary; as a glimpse into the bonds of people permanently imprinted on each other, this inventive script and lush production more than satisfies.
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 23, plus 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17. $15-$18. 313-408-7269. http://www.MagentaGiraffe.org