Saturday, February 27, 2010

review of *Blackbird*

At West Central Community Center, tonight and next Saturday, March 6, at 3 pm and 7:30 pm. Tickets: $10.

Director Sandy Hosking's Blackbird, both in the fact of its production and in the quality of its performances, is the kind of show that Spokane ought to see more often.

In an intense drama about sexual abuse and its tragic results, Jamie Flanery gives a nervous-fingers, eyes-welling-with-anguish portrait of vulnerability and shame, while Emily Hiller brings on the flirtation, resentment and manipulation. David Harrower's poetic-but-colloquial dialogue and Pinteresque situations, combined with Hosking's direction, add up to believability that's significant and thought-provoking.

The premise involves the meeting of a middle-aged man and late-20s woman, 15 years after he was convicted of sexually abusing her. It takes place in an actual meeting area with kitchen facilities, and the actors are up close and personal, lending the proceedings verisimilitude. It takes place, in other words, in exactly the kind of sterile, fluorescent-lit, unloved room in which Harrower set his play -- maybe not an employee break room exactly, but close.
Both actors delivered some speeches literally within arm's reach of the front row. (There were only two rows. They only set out a couple of dozen chairs. Theater-lovers ought to flock to this show and make them put out twice as many seats, if not more.
It's gripping, it's only 70 mins. long, and it involves two actors doing exceptional work that ought to be rewarded with attention from their fellow actors and theater folks.)

It's not for kids. Not only are there sexual situations, there's some simulated sex. It's disturbing, even perplexing material, and words like "fuck" and "cum" are uttered. Perhaps some will let it pass for just those reasons.

But consider what the script accomplishes: Making the creep human, making the victim more than merely victimized.
Having sex with a 12-year-old girl is wrong, period. I think the play makes that point — then goes on to make the situation more complex than a moralistic, legalistic approach would assume. What if she were mature beyond her years? What if both were attracted to one another? And why exactly has she sought him out, 15 years later, when both of them have very different and (until now) very separate lives?

Flanery is a revelation: Overwrought, nervous, ashamed, angry. Hiller prods and cajoles him; she has pounced on him out of the past, and we see glimpses of how seductive she can be, and what a lost soul she is.

There are flaws, of course. Hiller, directed by Hosking into flirtatious, come-hither poses, isn't entirely convincing in her anger. An outburst of violence was pretty darn good for a confined space but still stagey. The Portland production I saw created more menace just outside the room, and left much more ambiguity about Ray's and Una's future choices. (There's a major plot point near the end, and we ought to be left wondering more what decisions Ray and Una will make, and why, and how we feel about those.)

But when she kneels before him; when she bends over for him; when he towers over her; when they stand side by side, nostalgic for what they shared, fingers searching for a hand-hold, then realizing that their relationship was wrong, is doomed, and has ruined lives all around them and left their existence like the strewn garbage of their pig-sty break room environment; when he bows his head in shame as she pounds on his chest; when she stares daggers into his back during a long confessional speech ... those are the moments when being in a tiny, makeshift theater really pay off.

Blackbird highlights solid performances, and in closeup. Hiller and Flanery's performances will stick in your mind for days after. And then, after next Saturday, they'll be gone.

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