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Theater review: ‘The Two-Character Play,’ dir. L. Zane Jones

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This tour is not going well for Clare (Robin Jones) and Felice (Sam Read).

The brother-sister acting duo have been abandoned by their theater company and left in an unfamiliar town. What’s more, they receive word of the company’s desertion minutes before the curtain goes up on a hostile audience. Felice, the writer of the two, decides they’ll perform “The Two-Character Play,” an overlong piece he’s constantly revising, yet can’t bring himself to conclude.

Felice and Clare play characters named “Felice” and “Clare,” respectively, but the division between actor and character are in constant flux. With it goes the division between fiction and biography. We don’t know what actions are in character, or whether the actors have any awareness outside the play world. 

As they stumble through this quasimodo work before an imagined audience, the real audience is witness to some truly unsettling psychological scars. We are forced, along with Clare and Felice, to face ourselves in more ways than one. That reckoning is brought about in large part by the Civic Rep company’s use of venue.

One of the signature features of the New City Theater is its dimensions: a long narrow section of hallway, walled off at the ends, with no formal boundary between audience and actors. While past productions have seated the entire audience along one wall, “The Two-Character Play” puts a cluster of seats along each end wall.

This splits the audience into two halves facing each other while also taking in the action on stage. The longest wall is now covered by a black curtain, behind which the siblings insist their audience is seated.

It both disorients and compels as we see how our fellow theatergoers grin or grimace at the exposed emotional anguish before us. We watch the other half of the audience watching the actors watching their imagined audience, and the pervasive surveillance adds to the emotional paranoia. 

“The Two-Character Play” is understood as a highly personal work for writer Tennessee Williams. In his better-known plays like “The Glass Menagerie” or “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Williams reflects Southern anachronism, social ostracism, mental illness, and confinement: the themes of life with his family, especially his schizophrenic sister Rose.

This piece is more metatheatrical than Williams’ mainstream successes. It wrestles with theater as a medium, the hazards of getting too far into character, and the limits of art’s ability to help with personal problems.

“Confinement” is of particular import in this work. The very word is a long-standing taboo to the siblings. It’s unclear exactly who confined whom and who was more traumatized by the experience. 

Regardless of who’s at fault in their shared damage, both siblings fight to have an equal role in the destructive fallout. Even though Clare isn’t the writer, she insists on numerous cuts in the play, skipping over the parts she refuses to face. Before long, Felice is doing the same, until there isn’t much script left. As actor and writer struggle for creative control, more lines blur. 

By the end, the siblings are passing around props which don’t exist and can’t seem to tell if they’re performing in a theater, coping in their childhood home, or confined someplace entirely more sinister. Tricks of lighting and ominous droning swells of white noise complement the effect, calling perception into question for audience and characters alike.

With this work’s Joshua-like tendency for destroying walls, the New City Theater and Civic Rep are uniquely suited to perform it. The erosion of reality is facilitated all the more by the erosion of boundaries between performers and theatergoers. Only social convention keeps the two separate, and those same conventions may be the only thing pinning up the veil of reality.

It’s to Jones and Read’s credit they are able to sustain this multilayered illusion alone. They play characters within characters, and throw themselves into the action completely. It will be difficult from here out to separate Jones and Read from Clare and Felice, and audiences should be forgiven for showing some concern at the stars’ own well-being.

It’s not an easy work to follow, but “following” the plot is an intellectual exercise anyway. “The Two-Character Play” is more emotive in its experimentation. Like its avant-garde kin, it may say this or that about the collapse of trusted ideas in contemporary society, but here that collapse emerges organically from the toxic microcosm which exists between close family. 

Though it takes on the Modernist forms of Samuel Beckett, the core of “The Two-Character Play” is pure Williams: a mass of emotions set in conflict against each other to create unparalleled heights of drama. 

“The Two-Character Play” runs until Aug. 1, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the New City Theater (1404 18th Ave). General admission is $25, students are $15, and tickets can be purchased online through brownpapertickets.com.

The verdict: A disturbing-yet-rewarding piece of avant-theater perfected and made accessible by one of Seattle’s best companies.

 

Reach Arts & Leisure Editor Dylan Teague McDonald at arts@dailyuw.comTwitter: @DylanTM708

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