By Jakob Cansler
This article was first published in DC Theater Arts here.
It would seem, on the surface, that the plays in 4615 Theatre Company’s double bill could not be more different. One centers on a queer couple who just begun living together. The other, on two friends taking a boat out to sea.
Below the surface, though, both paper backs and Life Jacket, now performing at The Writer’s Center through February 26, have a lot in common. Both are premieres. Both speak to similar, and compelling, themes. And both ask of audiences exceptional attention.
paper backs by Tristan B. Willis, the first of the double bill, features a queer couple — named only The Writer (Caro Dubberly) and The Artist (Jessica Ludd) — who have just moved in together. Through a series of short scenes connected by poetic monologues, we watch as a rift forms in their once-strong relationship and connection turns to disconnection.
Their respective art forms are, in a tragically ironic sense, the biggest driver of that disconnect. The Writer struggles to understand The Artist’s art. The Artist struggles to understand the Writer’s literature. That failure to connect over their passions drives a wedge between them. After all, these are people whose art is their identities — it is how they express their emotions, their understanding, their connection with the other. To fail to connect over art is to fail to connect over identity.
Willis navigates this theme in compelling fashion, but the language of the play does perhaps more to hinder than help. The monologues and dialogue alike utilize an elevated language that is at once blunt and enigmatic, requiring a level of constant analysis to be understood.
And yet, understanding what is being said in paper backs is much less important than understanding what isn’t. That is where the directing, acting, and design choices shine through. Through subtle movements, Director Stevie Zimmerman’s staging brings the subtext of the deepening conflict between these two characters to life, while Ludd’s performance in particular complements the direction with an impressive emotional range. Jordan Friend’s soundtrack and Pierce Stonburner’s stirring lighting evoke the emotional arc of the characters as their alienation from one another grows.
As a result, paper backs in many ways punches above its weight. The same could be said of the second play in 4615’s two-part performance.
Life Jacket, written by Caridad Svich, centers on two adult friends, played by Jonathan Del Palmer and Eamon Patrick Walsh, from a small oceanside town, who go out on a boat as they do every Sunday. Normally, their ritual involves a quiet day on the water drinking PBR. This time, though, things go differently, as a combination of fighting, stormy weather, and a spiritual encounter (that may or may not be real) makes their trip increasingly tumultuous. That experience drives them apart and together simultaneously.
Svich’s writing in Life Jacket is unique, constantly blending traditional dialogue with fourth-wall-breaking narration, memories, and fantasies. This chaotic structure makes for a text that is fascinating but difficult at first to find an entry point into, as the characters move between the main action of the play to monologues to memories and back so quickly that it is difficult to keep up. As a result, there are plenty of moments when trying to understand what is going on distracts from, well, what is going on.
And what is going on is poignant. Life Jacket could be considered — much like a certain famous boat-based novel that is referenced throughout the play — to be a metaphor. The experience of the characters, real and potentially not real, speaks both to the universal feeling of isolation and the specific need for connection at this moment in time.
Here, as in paper backs, the directing and design choices are important in helping the audience navigate those themes. Director Friend, playing double-duty here, provides a staging that sometimes feels arbitrary at first but always ends up elevating the themes of the text.
Similarly, Stonburner’s lighting in Life Jacket gets increasingly striking as the action gets increasingly chaotic, while also creating visual cues to help traverse the play’s blend of storytelling formats. Sarah Beth Hall’s scenic design — which involves a floor of repurposed wood, moveable crates, and clouds made of fish nets — evokes both the rickety boat the characters set out on and the imagination the play seems to live in.
In fact, it is Hall’s scenic design that most effectively ties this double bill together. The two directors use the space Hall has designed differently, but the cohesive aesthetic, which works equally well for both paper backs and Life Jacket, creates an immediate mental connection between the two plays. They may tell different stories, but they utilize the same building blocks.Indeed, paper backs and Life Jacket are at once contrasting and complementary. Both require the audience to dig deep into the work, but promise a payoff for those who do. For both, I would argue, the payoff is worth it.