Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

***** ‘THE MEANING OF ZONG’ REVIEW – A MASTERFUL MEDITATION ON THE LEGACY OF SLAVERY ·

(Gareth Llŷr Evans’s review appeared in the UK Guardian, 4/8; Photograph: Curtis Richard Photography.)

Bristol Old Vic
Giles Terera’s lyrical and inventive drama about a brutal episode in British history brims with urgency, pain and ultimately pride

In November and December 1781, 132 enslaved Africans held captive on the British ship Zong were thrown overboard into the Caribbean sea and murdered. This brutal event and the subsequent London court cases which energised the abolitionist movement are chronicled in The Meaning of Zong, Giles Terera’s debut play. 

‘It was shameful I didn’t know about it’: Hamilton’s Giles Terera on the Zong massacre

Originally due to be staged in 2020 and adapted for radio last year, it now receives a richly theatrical first production. Framed by a contemporary setting, the play is resolutely aware of its place in the present moment and how its resonances may differ after the events of the intervening two years. It refrains from didacticism and easy metaphors.

Although the playwright not only shares directing duties with Tom Morris but also stars as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, it is very much an ensemble piece. Roles and scenery swiftly segue from one scene to the next: talking bookshelves become a crackling fireplace and revolutionary printing presses; slaves become judges.

Performed to music composed and spectacularly played live by Sidiki Dembele, Terera’s nimble script moves to its own rhythm. An extended and exquisitely lyrical second-act monologue might, in a less assured production, feel like it belongs to a different play. Here it feels wholly apposite, performed to devastating effect by Kiera Lester.

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**** CULTURE WARS AND CONSERVATIVES: THE RIVETING PLAY SET AT A DRUNKEN HOUSE PARTY ·

(Cameron Woodhead’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3/31/22; Photo: Old tensions surface in this rare drama. CREDIT:JODIE HUTCHINSON.)     

Heroes of the Fourth Turning ★★★★
Red Stitch, until April 10

Why do we live in such politically polarised times? The echo chambers of social media? Tribal identity politics on both sides of the fence? What about theatre? It’s no secret the art form skews to the political left. The lion’s share of vibrant, accomplished drama is filtered through a socially progressive lens … and so is the bulk of the strident, unaccomplished stuff that simply preaches to the converted.

Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a rare bird in the theatre world – a play that lets actors loose on fully fleshed-out characters of a conservative bent, daring audiences to imagine and to grapple with their perspectives and experiences.

In Wyoming, a group of young conservative Christians gathers to get drunk at a house party. They’ve returned to celebrate Gina (Margaret Mills), who’s been appointed president of their alma mater, but old tensions surface during their reunion.

Personal struggles become political as they share encounters with mainstream, socially progressive culture, and erupt into argument over glaring contradictions between their religious convictions and the belligerent rhetoric of Trumpism.

The play is a necessary complement (and corrective) to Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels, which offered a fly-on-the-wall view of a liberal household in upstate New York. That realist trilogy premiered during the 2016 presidential election and its characters used Hillary Clinton’s trick of failing to mention Trump by name – not once over nine hours – condemning it to being an instant museum piece. 

Heroes of the Fourth Turning doesn’t make that mistake. These young Catholics might hold views you find objectionable or confronting – they’re all ardent pro-lifers, for instance – but they’re hyperaware of the political and culture wars around them. They wrestle with opposing ideas and engage in searching, sometimes compulsive debate among themselves.

What makes it so riveting to watch isn’t just the rigour and rhetorical allure of the argumentation, it’s that the characters are so nuanced, their personalities so recognisable and richly drawn.

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***** ‘DIARY OF A SOMEBODY’ REVIEW – STUNNING DRAMA FROM JOE ORTON’S JOURNAL ·

(Ryan Gilbey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/31; Photo:  Taut with tension … Toby Osmond and George Kemp in Diary of a Somebody. Photograph: Brittain Photography.)

Seven Dials Playhouse, London
The playwright’s relationship with Kenneth Halliwell is given new clarity in a play that is both hilarious and chilling

‘I’ve high hopes of dying young,” announces Joe Orton cheerfully in Diary of a Somebody. He got his wish: the author of barbed, subversive comedies such as Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot was murdered in 1967 at the age of 34 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. This play, pieced together by John Lahr from Orton’s journal as well as from correspondence and interviews, has often been overshadowed by the diaries themselves and by Stephen Frears’ 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, adapted by Alan Bennett from Lahr’s biography of the same name.

Seen here in Nico Rao Pimparé’s punchy new staging, its own merits and insights are inarguable. Distance helps: with Aids dominating gay life in the 1980s, and Clause 28 on the horizon, Orton’s priapic endeavours made him seem then like a purely heroic sexual swashbuckler. Now his callousness, along with Halliwell’s suffering, emerge with greater clarity and force.

Breakneck action involving nearly 50 minor characters (shared among four supporting cast members: Jemma Churchill, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal and Jamie Zubairi) is squeezed on to the cramped stage like glad rags in an overstuffed suitcase. The floor of Valentine Gigandet’s set is tiled with pink-and-yellow squares which visually underscore the tension between the cocksure Orton (George Kemp) and the saturnine, self-loathing Halliwell (Toby Osmond), who keeps adding to the monochrome collage that spreads like damp across the walls of their flat. A black sheet placed on the couple’s bed during a funeral scene provides a chilling harbinger of doom.

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‘DOGS OF EUROPE’ REVIEW – ART AND ACTIVISM COMBINE IN BREATHTAKING SPECTACLE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the guardian, 3/13; Photo: A necessary affront … Aliaksei Naranovich and Raman Shytsko in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian.)

Barbican, London
Fairytale imagery is mixed with absurdist humour in this prescient political thriller in which Russia has become a dictatorial superstate

Given the political history of the Belarus Free Theatre and its overt references to the war in Ukraine in this production, Dogs of Europe cannot be seen as theatre alone. It is art, activism and theatrical disruption, at once.

Having been performed clandestinely in garages and warehouses in Minsk, it feels released on this large-scale stage. Like a genie escaping from a bottle, there is a magnificent eruption of sound and spectacle. Big, haunting, discordant songs and music by Mark and Marichka Marczyk of Balaklava Blues expand to fill the auditorium. Maria Sazonova’s choreography is arresting in its acrobatic drama, with movements like orchestrated military exercises or assaults, and containing a fierce, fulminating physicality. A back screen for projections (with video design by Richard Williamson) begins as a roving camera from a computer game, which gives the show an unstable, lurching quality and seems designed to discombobulate its audience.

Every member of the ensemble has spent time in jail and their orchestrated movements play out street protests, battles, rape and murder. Inert bodies are dragged off stage, time and again. Deliberately cartoonish violence shows characters shot at point-blank range and bouncing back up.

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SHIFTING IDENTITIES IN SANAZ TOOSSI’S “ENGLISH” (NY) ·

(Alexandra Schwartz’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 2/28/22;  In Toossi’s play, four Iranian students become friends or rivals in an English class.Illustration by Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants.)

In a play about a TOEFL class in Iran, speaking a second language isn’t just a way to say the same things differently but a way to be different.

To learn a second language as a grownup, when the pliable, plastic brain has hardened to brittle glass, is to know the locked-in sensation of being shut out—from other people, with their enviable, easy fluency, and, worse, from your own articulate self. We are as much made of words as we are of flesh and blood. Personality dissolves in an unfamiliar language like a sugar cube dropped into a cup of tea; estrangement from a mother tongue can be as painful as estrangement from an actual mother. It can be freeing, too, the way that leaving home often is. A few years ago, I saw the Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh perform a set in English for a cabaret-size crowd at Joe’s Pub. In France, Elmaleh is a star who sells out arenas. In his forties, he had decided to see if he could be funny in another language, one that he spoke with creaky grammar and a limited vocabulary. The performance that resulted from this self-imposed dare was notable less as an exercise in humor than as a test of endurance, a feat undertaken in pursuit of becoming someone new.

Each of the four students learning English in “English,” a new play by Sanaz Toossi (a Roundabout and Atlantic Theatre Company co-production, directed by Knud Adams), has a different reason for wanting to speak the language. Omid (Hadi Tabbal) has a green-card interview coming up. Roya (Pooya Mohseni) needs to be able to communicate with her granddaughter, who lives in Canada. Elham (Tala Ashe) has been accepted to medical school in Australia. Goli (Ava Lalezarzadeh) is only eighteen, but she’s been captivated by the language since she was small; English may be the key to her future, but it’s also a deep aesthetic pleasure. We’re in a toefl (Test of English as a Foreign Language) class in the Iranian city of Karaj, near Tehran, in 2008. The students’ native tongue is Farsi, but, with one big exception, we hear only English onstage, because Toossi, who is Iranian American and grew up in California, has found a simple and fantastically effective way to depict the double self of the novice language learner. When her characters are “speaking” Farsi, we hear quick, idiomatic American English. But, when they speak English itself, their voices slow down, and their accents grow thick; they drop their indefinite articles, struggle to pronounce their “W”s, and have to search for the right words to stitch together into rough sentences.

There’s no shortage of easy comedy to be wrung from the conceit of foreigners who talk “funny,” as these students, preparing to be foreign, know all too well. They’re haunted by the spectre of Borat: is that how they’ll sound to an Anglophone ear? But, while Toossi’s play frequently delights in the infelicities of imperfect speech, it’s never cruel. Guided by their teacher, Marjan (the sensitive Marjan Neshat), the students play hot-potato vocab games and conduct the sort of stilted small-talk dialogue about nothing which will be brutally familiar to anyone who’s taken a class like this:

Elham: Hello what is it your favorite color?
Roya: It is red my favorite color.
Elham: Red it is . . . strong. Strong color. Very strong.
Roya: Very strong. It is strong. I am strong. One time I carry six boxes.
Elham: Okay. Wow. Six.
Roya: One time big chair. Big big chair.
(Beat.)
Elham: It is over now.

Elham cuts the exercise short because she can’t tolerate sounding “like idiot”—“an idiot,” Marjan corrects her—when she knows herself to be anything but. She has the most urgent reason for being in the class: she aced her mcats, but she needs to pass the toefl to matriculate and to qualify as a paid teaching assistant, and time is running out. She also has the worst English of the group, and an attitude to match. Roya is dignified and unflappable. Goli is sweet and eager. Omid is a showoff, and suspiciously fluent, almost as if he doesn’t need to be there at all. But Elham is sullen, sarcastic, combative; she locks horns with Omid, insults Goli’s accent, and can’t stop herself from breaking into rapid-fire Farsi, even after Marjan institutes a demerit system, keeping a tally of linguistic infractions on the classroom whiteboard. To learn a language, you have to be willing to abase yourself. Elham’s pride is her ruin. She’s already failed the toefl five times, though she can bring herself to confess that shameful truth only to Marjan. “Word is humiliation,” she says. “I look it up.”

Marjan may understand how Elham feels, but she refuses to indulge her. She spent nine years living in Manchester, England, before returning to Iran, and, spiritually, she’s still abroad. “It took me two years alone to figure out the bus routes,” she says, wistfully. What can she do with that knowledge now? She misses the city, the culture. She misses herself, too. In England, Marjan was called Mary, a renaming that her students, when they discover it, interpret as a gross affront, another case of the homogenizing West asserting its dominance over anything that smacks of otherness. But Marjan loved being Mary. It was an adventure, an escape. So was speaking English. It wasn’t just a way to say the same things differently but a way to be different—not a truncation of the self but an expansion of it. “I always liked myself better in English,” she confesses. Back in Iran, she feels like an immigrant again, unmoored by her longing for a lost land.

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***** ‘ANNA KARENINA’ REVIEW – TOLSTOY MEETS BAZ LUHRMANN IN A MAGNIFICENT SPECTACLE  (UK) ·

(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/11. Photo: Through the wringer … Adelle Leoncé (Anna) in Anna Karenina at the Crucible, Sheffield. Photograph: Marc Brenner.)

Crucible, Sheffield
With hula hoops and a giant cake, this show bashes the narrative with disco glitz but keeps tragedy at its centre

That the props department had to source a giant birthday cake, a pink flamingo inflatable swimming ring and several luminous green hula hoops for this production should tell you everything you need to know about the reverence in which the source material is held.

Director Anthony Lau, using a celebrated 1992 adaptation by Helen Edmundson, shows almost no respect for the milieu of Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, and in thumbing his nose at the weighty reputation of the Russian’s magnum opus activates the story to create a production that is thrilling and utterly compelling.

It is all built around an absorbing performance from Adelle Leoncé as the eponymous heroine. She goes through the wringer over the course of the three-hour piece, leaving everything on the stage.

Around her, Lau makes some seriously bold choices. The costumes and staging are Baz Luhrmann-esque; indeed one scene that descends from Russian aristocratic ball to all-out disco could slip into any of the films in the Australian director’s red curtain trilogy.

Edmundson’s smartly economical storytelling has Anna and Konstantin Levin, played here by the highly watchable Dougie McMeekin, asking each other “‘where are you now?”. Standing on an empty stage Anna can tell him “I’m on a train heading for Moscow” or “I’m in an Italian town in an old, shabby palazzo” and so she is and with her we go.

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‘SKELETON CREW’ TRACES POWER DYNAMICS AT A FACTORY ·

 

(Vinson Cunningham’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 1/21/22; Phylicia Rashad plays Faye, a tough, wisecracking union leader and matriarch.Illustration by Owen D. Pomery.)

Dominique Morisseau’s new play, set in a Detroit automotive plant, is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people.

Bristling and jumping and speeding forward with skillful talk, “Skeleton Crew,” the new play by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for Manhattan Theatre Club (on Broadway, at the Samuel J. Friedman), stakes out ground that’s viable only in the theatre: the piece offers hope—and a kind of proof—that conversation carried out seriously is its own undeniable action. As Morisseau’s characters think, they speak in eloquent earfuls, and, in speaking, they push themselves and one another toward crises and discoveries that can be resolved only by yet more talk. Friendly insults are a goad and a salve. Side comments grow into rafts of rhetoric. Everyday complaints—those absolutely necessary companions to repetitive work—grasp toward, and often reach, an earthy philosophy. Fuelled on the diesel of ardent chitchat, this play moves and purrs and swerves and does its humane thing, teaching its audience how to keep up as it goes.

The setting is a dowdily crowded break room at an automotive stamping plant in Detroit. If you’ve had a job whose paycheck you appreciated but whose particulars you could take or leave, you know this kind of scene. There are notes on the food in the fridge and, on the walls, big flyers sharing meeting times and picking disciplinary nits.

Faye (Phylicia Rashad) is the tough, wisecracking matriarch of the space. She’s a union leader, undisguisedly admired by her young co-workers Dez (Joshua Boone) and Shanita (Chanté Adams). Faye’s funny and bawdy, openly queer and never afraid to talk some shit and smoke a cigarette, those rule-ridden signs be confounded. “Been this way over fifty years, don’t see why I gotta change now,” she says. She opens up especially when she’s flouting rules. She and Dez—whom she jokingly beckons to “bow down and lick the dust off my Tims”—have a conversation over a game of cards, and she tells the story of her early pregnancy, an older woman giving the young kid a bit of perspective:

Once you shame your mama and turn up with a fast tail, you got to be put out and ain’t no lookin’ back. I was scared shitless but somethin’ in me knew I was gonna survive. Not cuz nothin’ was promised to me or cuz I could see the light at the end of the tunnel or no shit like that. But somethin’ in me knew what I was made of. I was gonna survive cuz I had to.

Rashad—whom I tend to associate with an urbane and respectable Black upper-middle-classness, undoubtedly because of her famous role on “The Cosby Show,” as Clair Huxtable—plays Faye as rooted and brassy, funky and frank. She maintains a mismatch of tempos: Faye moves slowly but talks at a sprint. She, Dez, and Shanita are a working-class team, more or less aware of one another’s woes and gently soothing them with jokes.

Their supervisor is Reggie (Brandon J. Dirden). He’s weighed down by his structural position, dangling between management and the workers he gruffly likes. He wants it both ways, as reluctant bosses often do: he’s in charge but also wants a family feeling. We find out early on that the plant is soon going to close, but it stays a secret between Reggie and Faye, who do have a family tie: Faye and Reggie’s mother were bosom friends, closer than close, and Reggie has known Faye all his life. “Skeleton Crew” is, among other things, about the subtle and ever-shifting class distinctions among Black people, which result not only in dialectical clashes but in other, more complex formations—councils, congregations, choruses, all somewhat fractured by the inconveniences of money and work.

Reggie is “management,” but he comes from the working class, and he knows that one misstep will send him back to the other side of the line. The people he reports to seem to be white and safely distant from the fallout of a plant closure in a way that Reggie could never be. He asks Faye to trust that he’ll help the workers land on their feet—a proposition that shouldn’t fly in a union setting. This is how race and class and family work in this play, all expressed through coaxing conversation: it makes a smart, bold woman soften up just enough to accept such a tenuous agreement. Reggie’s proud that, after so much effort, he can wear a “button-up to work,” as Faye puts it; all of her labor savvy notwithstanding, Faye’s proud of him, too. The love ethic of race and place, familiarity and origin, makes women defend men, and workers cover for their managers and cross lines more consequential but less concrete than the picket.

Tellingly, the play is set around 2008—there’s an Obama bumper sticker prominently displayed on the break-room fridge. The upwardly mobile former President offered the nation, briefly, a way to think about racial uplift without the troubles of racial capitalism and its discontents. The strain falls on guys like Reggie, who eventually have to pick a side.

Dirden is consistently good as a put-together man under pressure—he flushes pinkly with color when his characters have a lot on their minds. So he’s good as Reggie, who wants to move on up, but also to stay “down” with the people he knows. “I’m sick of walking that line,” he laments. “Line that say I’m over here and you over there and even though we started with the same dirt on our shoes.”

Santiago-Hudson directs the actors wonderfully: it’s an ensemble that always works and sometimes crackles, handling Morisseau’s cerebral and joyously verdant text easily. Adams and Boone are soulful as a sensitive, tentatively flirtatious pair: Shanita is pregnant but seemingly estranged from the baby’s father; Dez, head over heels for Shanita, is streetwise but tender, a classic young man in a hurry, with something to prove.

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***** ‘DOUBT: A PARABLE’ REVIEW – MONICA DOLAN DAZZLES IN A DRAMA OF SUREFIRE BRILLIANCE (UK) ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/28; The truth at any cost … Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius in Doubt. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Many will know John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 parable from the Oscar-nominated film adaptation with towering performances by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This taut production walks out from under its long shadow to dazzle with its own invention.

Father Flynn (Sam Spruell) has been seen alone with 12-year-old new boy Donald Muller in a school governed by nuns. Altar wine has been drunk. The principal, Sister Aloysius (Monica Dolan), is sure some wrongdoing must have occurred between the priest and the boy and so begins her campaign to unearth the truth and take Flynn down.

Shanley’s script harkens back to a 1960s Catholic corner of the Bronx in New York but like all good parables, its story feels both timeless and more timely than ever, its ideological arguments speaking to our world of social media silos and Punch and Judy political debates.

In a production directed by Lia Williams, intention and truth stay opaque – it is not only the Sister’s tyranny of certitude that is complicated but also the Father’s silver-tongued sermonising on doubt. Is she smoking out the truth or clinging to absolutes in a fast-changing world? Is he mobilising arguments in an effort to escape blame? Each character’s cards are played close to their chest and the performances elevate themselves beyond any comparisons with the film.

Dolan brings an unsettling humour and swagger to her role. She is not a likable character – and not as seemingly reasonable as the Father – but that does not make her position wrong. “It is my job to outshine the fox,” she says, and she could be Miss Marple in a habit – gimlet-eyed, ever suspicious, performing Catholic duty to the letter and seeing heresy even in Frosty the Snowman.

There is something magnificently rebellious about Dolan’s portrayal: she is never going to win against a “man in a robe”, says Mrs Muller when she visits the school to talk about her son’s apparent abuse. But the Sister squares up to a patrician church and its nakedly patriarchal power structures, even as Flynn pulls rank, telling her what women can’t do in the church and threatening to get her fired.

Spruell is equally magnificent, by turns beseeching, vulnerable, explosive and entitled, at once both victim and arch manipulator who talks to schoolboys about making sure to keep their nails clean, as if appearance is all. “Children need warmth,” he says, and the drama’s ground constantly shifts between his truth and hers.

Their confrontations are bare-teethed and full of Pinteresque savagery, while the two ancillary characters, Sister James (Jessica Rhodes) and Mrs Muller (Rebecca Scroggs) bring added moral complications and controlled, compelling performances.

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EVERY BRILLIANT THING REVIEW: A MAGICAL, UPLIFTING SHOW (IRELAND) ·

(Sara keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 1/13; photo: With an implacable smile, Conroy encourages and supports even the most reluctant of audience members to join her on stage.)

It is hard to imagine anyone not falling for its gentle inclusivity and charm

EVERY BRILLIANT THING

Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage
★★★★☆

Before the start of Every Brilliant Thing, a soul-stirring play by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, performer Amy Conroy circles the auditorium, greeting the audience and enlisting their assistance. Each audience member is handed a numbered index card with a short statement on it. When the time comes, Conroy entreats us, would we be so kind as to share that statement with the rest of the theatre? Yes, the fundamental thrust of this magically uplifting show about mental health is interactive, but it is hard to imagine anyone not falling for its gentle inclusivity and for Conroy’s easy charm.

Every Brilliant Thing tells the story of a young girl confronted with her mother’s depression (in the original version the child was a boy). Her instinct is to try and cure her mother. With this in mind, she starts curating a list of all the amazing things that the universe has to offer. She starts with simple things (ice-cream, kung-fu films) but as it grows the list encompasses more personal pleasures, including the family’s shared love of music. While her mother seems immune to her daughter’s interventions, the daughter herself is transformed: the list changes how she sees the world, providing her with an emotional literacy and resilience that will eventually save her from her mother’s fate. he similarity seemed to me uncanny

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***** ‘LIFE IS A DREAM’ REVIEW – THIS ROARING TALE OF REVENGE IS EXTRAORDINARY (SV PICK, SCOTLAND) ·

(Mark Fisher’s article appared in the Guardian, 11/3; Photo: Fierce and ferocious … Anna Russell-Martin as Rosaura in Life Is a Dream at Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. Photograph: Ryan Buchanan.)

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Wils Wilson’s perception-bending production highlights the artifice of a prince’s world, exposing the thin veneer of riches and respectability

Segismundo has just woken up in a palace, having spent his life holed up in a tower. In Pedro Calderón’s extraordinary Spanish golden age drama, he is astonished at the luxury he is suddenly immersed in. “Me, surrounded by all these elegant-looking servants,” he says.

Except in Wils Wilson’s production, the servants are nothing of the kind. Their look could be called punk Pierrot: all back-combed hair, eccentric makeup and bare feet. In accordance with designer Georgia McGuinness’s dressing-up-box aesthetic, their outfits are a thrown-together combination of long johns and glitz.

Their elegance is as provisional as the scrawled chalk line that marks the edge of a stage that extends across the stalls and creates a hallucinatory depth of field. Emerging from the haze of Kai Fischer’s lighting is a fake proscenium arch, distressed and decaying, an expression of the play’s theme about the real and the pretend.

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