by John Bavoso
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.
In the promotional materials for their production of Iris Dauterman’s Sing To Me Now, Rorschach Theatre has been highlighting one particular quote from the script: “Every second you hesitate, every moment you’re not writing, furiously writing, or dancing, or singing, things are getting worse. So hurry. Up.”
While the creative types among us might hear a call to action (or a call to curl up into the fetal position and hide under our covers), in the context of the play, it’s more like an epithet hurled by a beleaguered muse at her Pollyanna human intern in order to intimidate and provoke her. And in the world that Dauterman’s skillfully crafted script and Rorschach’s team of theatrical sorcerers have created, that all makes perfect sense.
As director Jenny McConnell Frederick noted before the opening night performance, Rorschach fell in love with the script for Sing To Me Now as they helped to develop it through the company’s inaugural MAGIC IN ROUGH SPACES PLAY LAB earlier this year. Many of the actors from that initial workshop transferred to this full production, which is evident in the passion they bring to their roles and the lived-in, authentic performances that McConnell Frederick has elicited from them.
For Sing To Me Now, Rorschach has transformed the intimate Lab II black box at the Atlas Performing Arts Center into a land of dreams and myth. It is here that we meet Calliope (or Callie to her friends), nearly drowning in paperwork and angst. Chloe Mikala masterfully embodies the jaded muse of epic poetry, all hard edges gained from working too hard for too little recognition (no one looking for inspiration for their novel, or next song, or cheesecake recipe even addresses her by her real name!).
Callie’s workload is so overwhelming due to the fact that, owing to a set of circumstances that I will not spoil for you, she is the only one of the muses left to provide inspiration to the ungrateful humans below. Her best friend, Mo (short for Morpheus, and played with both snark and awkward vulnerability by Erik Harrison), the god of dreams, keeps her company and tries to convince her to sleep. But when she sleeps, she dreams of her sisters, and that’s something she’s definitely trying to avoid.
Her only other companions are her mother, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory (a warm and funny Cam Magee), who exhibits dementia-like symptoms caused by having, of all things, too many memories in her head, and Hades (played with the perfect combination of pomposity and self-pity by Ian Armstrong), who enters and exits via an old-timey elevator to the underworld. “He’s my sister’s asshole ex-boyfriend and also my asshole uncle…. because that’s how we roll,” Callie quips.
But Callie hasn’t resigned herself to wallowing—in fact, she’s put out a Help Wanted call to the universe; our muse, you see, is looking for an intern. And she gets one, much to her chagrin, in the form of Claire, who Callie insists on calling Yankee, a wide-eyed, naïve college graduate who’s having trouble finding a “real” job. Tori Boutin imbues Yankee with the right amount of self-awareness and chutzpah to keep her from being too cloying or irritating, but also with enough youthful optimism and exuberance to rub Callie the wrong way… at least at first. Soon enough, the two become what must be among the most unlikely work-friend pairings in history.
The cast is rounded out by Desiree Chappelle and Jonathan Del Palmer, who show great range as everything from aquatic ballet dancers to muses to Marcel Duchamp. Their cameos often serve to inject some levity into some otherwise fraught situations.
McConnell Frederick does an excellent job of using every inch of the small space and filling it with action in a way that feels purposeful and natural. Under her deft direction, the performances are rooted in realistic, relatable emotion, despite the fact that most of her actors are playing supernatural beings. In combination with Dauterman’s nuanced writing, she helps to bring mythic events down to a human scale in the best way possible—even when the stakes are the literal survival of the human race and art itself.
And it wouldn’t be a Rorschach show without some seriously nifty design work. A fair bit of the action involves the characters fishing ideas and dreams from a river, made possible thanks to Swedian Lei’s ingenious set design. Similarly, Rachael Knoblauch’s props design, Sarah Tundermann’s lighting design, and Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s sound design come together for an effect that transforms mundane objects into pure magic.
At its heart, Sing To Me Now grapples with a lot of weighty topics, including what the role of art is in a cruel, chaotic world; whether the human race is even worth fighting for; and how we cope with unimaginable grief. And like the best of art, what it offers is not so much clear answers as the hope we need to keep going, keep fighting, even after we leave the theater.
Sing To Me Now by Iris Dauterman. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick. Featuring: Ian Armstrong, Tori Boutin, Desiree Chappelle, Erik Harrison, Cam Magee, Chloe Mikala, and Jonathan Del Palmer. Costume designer: Debra Kim Sivigny. Set designer: Swedian Lie. Properties designer: Rachael Knoblauch. Sound designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Lighting designer: Sarah Tundermann. Production manager: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Stage manager: Rebecca Talisman. Produced by Randy Baker, Jenny McConnell Frederick, and Jonelle Walker.