The ingeniously well-crafted world premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s The Cataract is a two-act demonstration of why the Perishable Theatres of this country damn well better survive. Conventional theater needs to have audiences trained to take in a story through more than our shopping list capacity. Call it experimental, call it poetical theater, call it not your grandpa’s theater — this collaboration with New York’s Theatre of the Two-Headed Calf is a marvel.
Every element comes together, from the fat-trimmed text by Obie-winner D’Amour, to the on-the-money directing by Brooke O’Harra, to the rock-steady acting, to the fascinating set and sound design.
With its 1886 setting in Minneapolis, the story might seem tailor-made for conventional, naturalistic narrative treatment. A sedate couple takes in boarders, travelers from the deep South, since the men are working together on a bridge next to the only waterfall on the thunderous Mississippi River. The cataract of the title also describes the tumultuous feelings rushing forth within each of these four thrust close together. The hosts are Lottie (Nadia Madhi) and Cyrus (Jonathan Woodward). She is straight-laced, corseted with strict notions of hard work and little play. Her husband is under her thrall of righteous living. He gave up carving figures for the railroad station trade when she succeeded in taming him.
Boarder Dinah (Nehassaiu deGannes) stands in unlikely contrast. Her mother ran "a house of ill repute," she readily admits, to Lottie’s surprisingly calm reception. Dinah is impulsive and imaginative, fanciful: at one point she is scrubbing a pine floor that frustratingly is oozing sap, and she asks whether the moon or a dying child might be beneath the boards. She receives books in the mail from a former lover in Oslo, and chocolates from another in Paris. She is loyal to her partner, Dan (Thomas Lipinski), who has left behind a young son and the boy’s mother to be with her, and he is steadfast in return.
After just a few days, when the erotic possibilities — of whatever gender combination — bob to their awareness, living in close proximity gets sticky. But the house guests have paid for three months and the money has been spent, so they all have to live together. Some of their changes are predictable, others not. Emotionally suppressed Lottie, being the one most in need of change, is like a tightly twisted faucet about to burst off its pipe from the pressure. In a millenary shop, the pleasure she takes in ordering a new hat — fuchsia, no less — is charming.
A fifth character is late 19th-century Minneapolis itself. We are informed that it is in the shape of a wedge, one side toward the wild North, the other facing the influx from the South. Much like these folks and their pending decisions, the city is a way station for people becoming someone else. By the play’s end, each character has grown out of the chrysalis of their inauthentic behavior.
Easily lost in all of this is that The Cataract is continually funny. Its minimally but sufficiently developed characters verbally flop about frequently like fish out of water before leaping back into the safety of their minds. The ironic tone is maintained by director O’Harra; she has them employ intentionally stilted diction when they are speaking behind their social masks — with insincere politeness, for example. That establishes a quiet tension to the interplays, which surprises and relieves us when characters eventually speak their hearts. Or sing, as they occasionally do, the text drawn from their current situations. Composer Brendan Connelly’s soundscape provides an eerie undercurrent, with Carolina Maugeri on violin and Andrew Fox on guitar and mandolin sometimes merely droning a single string.
The scenic design by Jeremy Woodward is impressive. Raw pine planks jut this way and that — even the central stage area is as askew as these characters. Two lattices of weathered strips tower above, representing arches of the bridge. Tara Webb’s costume design also enhances — especially the makeshift skirt of Dinah, made from a pair dark wool pants, bunched up bustle-style.
Often this play is surreal as the four share their dreams and fantasies. Sometimes that shimmer of unreality appropriately intrudes on the realistic story line quite naturally — a play is a collective fantasy, isn’t it? In less adept hands this could all have presented the sort of blurred vision that too often passes for avant-garde theater. Thank heavens and Perishable and Two-Headed Calf that we get magic instead.
Issue Date: May 13 - 19, 2005
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