By Carolyn Hayes
Metro Detroit is no stranger to low-budget, guerrilla theater, which thrives on low overhead and creative repurposing of abundant vacant spaces. Add to this landscape the new Puzzle Piece Theatre, the brainchild of recent transplant D.B. Schroeder, which has taken root in an epicenter of creative resurgence in Detroit proper, ready to challenge conventional expectations of storytelling and live performance. In Anthony Clarvoe’s piercing “Show and Tell” (with design and direction by Schroeder), the company’s debut production most strongly asserts that it isn’t afraid to stare down jarring subject matter.
The play is a fiction depicting the aftermath of a classroom explosion that instantly kills two dozen schoolchildren; however coincidental, the resemblance to all-too-factual calamities at Sandy Hook Elementary is startling. Schroeder uses the unique qualities of the space to keep the tragedy at the fore of the audience’s minds. The theater is nestled within the creative hub that is the Russell Industrial Center, accessed by a winding back-entrance parking lot and two-ish flights of stairs – made friendly by ample signage and convivial guides, as well as an instructive video posted on the theater’s website. However, once past the hubbub of hallway and through the box office, the viewer steps directly into the ravaged classroom, a diorama of scorch and spatter; everything, including scenes set elsewhere, including the audience itself, is contained within this room, so there is literally no looking away. Although the concept never crosses over into feeling like an assault on the viewer, Schroeder’s vision, including a heavy-handed sound scheme of children’s songs, is clearly not interested in relenting.
As the stunned waiting and unanswered questions spin out into hours and then days, the play aims to make sense of the catastrophe in two ways. One is the practical approach, in which a forensic team of government investigators catalogs evidence, combs through remains, and seeks to neatly wrap up the case, all through a mask of vital desensitization veering into bored detachment. The other is an emotional and spiritual sojourn, as parents and guardians wait, void of hope or direction, for something tangible or concrete to help them understand their tremendous loss.
Bridging the two camps is Corey (Erin Hildebrandt), the children’s teacher, who had briefly stepped out of the room and narrowly escaped the blast. The play’s journey is ultimately hers as, desperate to alleviate her survivor’s guilt, she offers to aid in the investigation and begins to confide in Seth (Zach Hendrickson), the droll investigation leader who sees in her something singularly familiar. The line between their personal and professional rapport is indistinct from the outset and only grows more remote, as Corey dabbles in shock, fascination, numbness, misery, and the basest of needs for human connection.
Here, an emotionally fatiguing text that could have been histrionic is instead tempered with even-keel restraint and deliberate, sometimes lugubrious, pacing. The adherence to baseline – and a fair amount of overlap in double casting – irons out many of the finer distinctions among the supporting performances, whose characters become delivery systems for credos and data; any aberrations stick out as clear hints. Through mother Laura Heikkinen’s waver-voiced proselytizing, father Alastar Dimitrie’s thickly insistent anxiety, intern Sarah Oravetz’s eager gawking, and coroner Karen Minard’s keen balance of academic rigor and rubber-neck curiosity, the wash of supporting roles remains decidedly secondary.
Consequentially, much of the production finds its characters taking action without intention, through a fog of disaffected bewilderment. At the center of the story, Hildebrandt does fine work finally breaking out of the thousand-yard stare in a late revelatory scene, although her stilted rapport with businesslike Hendrickson is not as successful. The performances stop short of reaching the rawness of acute grief; while this can feel like a mercy in light of recent events at Sandy Hook, the immediacy of those still-stinging emotional wounds can’t help but overshadow the artifice of the play, which suffers somewhat by the insistent comparison.
Each performance of “Show and Tell” will be followed by a talkback with the cast, offering a welcome outlet for this unintentionally prescient production and its disquieting atmosphere and themes. Ultimately, the show is a challenging piece of theater with a merciless concept, a step in the right direction for a company bent on getting at eye level with its audience. Yet there is a difference between “face to face” and “in your face”; here, the proximity is refreshing, but a drama this passionately combative cannot pull its punches.
‘Show and Tell’
Puzzle Piece Theatre at Russell Industrial Center, 1600 Clay St., third floor of Building 2, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through Feb. 24. 1 hour, 55 minutes (with 10 minute intermission). $15. 313-303-8019. http://www.PuzzleStage.org