|Shotgun Players photo by Jessica Palopoli|
The Events is a difficult play. Not only does it deal with disturbing material (the aftermath of a mass shooting event and post-traumatic stress), but it does so in challenging ways. There are only two actors on the stage, really. One is Claire, the survivor of the aforementioned event, and the other, referred to as "The Boy," is everyone else. That everyone else is a constantly shifting range of people, from Claire's lover to her therapist to the shooter to his father to a politician.... You get the idea. And that role switches in an instant, sometimes back and forth in rapid succession. So it could be a bit hard to follow.
But Scottish playwright David Greig handles the task with great skill and some excellent language.
And did I mention there is a choir? The script calls for a community choir on the stage. And more than that, a different choir for every performance. Because Claire is a priest and a choir director, so she needs a choir to direct. And also, she was directing the choir when the event took place. So at every performance, there is a new choir. They've learned some music in advance, plus they get to rehearse for a couple of hours before the show and then they're on. It turns out to be a remarkably effective tactic, but I'm ahead of myself. And there is also a musical director and accompanist who has a few lines, too. But really, it's two actors and a choir.
The PlayThe script is quite nonlinear. We jump from the boy's rambling writings online to Claire welcoming him into the choir's rehearsal space to all kinds of snippets of Claire trying to come to grips with having survived, wanting to understand and figure a way to make her world work again. So while this in some ways resembles a stream of consciousness, it's really more of a jumbled mind, racing and bouncing from one thought to a memory to a rationalization to some intervening shock and so on. None of it quite resolves itself, which can feel unsettling and unsatisfying, but that's all part of the message.
The ProductionObviously, the two actors carry an immense amount of weight in this play. Julia McNeal plays Claire with deep emotion, as we see her swing from her comfortable, settled pastor in an established emotional partnership to a stressed, confused, disturbed survivor struggling to hold onto the threads of her previous life while trying to make any kind of sense out of the trauma she's been through. It's not, and can't be, a smooth journey, and McNeal navigates Claire with care and expression through some very difficult scenes.
On the other hand, The Boy, played by Caleb Cabrera, has to cover an even vaster array of behavior and emotions. In addition to several different facets and phases of the shooter's life, from disturbed, confused teen to Viking Tribal Warrior training himself to be a berserker to the reflective narrator of his own Events to the confused, rather withdrawn and self-serving prisoner. And interspersed with that, scenes where he must also be the unemotional therapist, the struggling lover/partner, the shooter's father, and several other characters, something like fifteen in all. The physical and verbal challenges of the role are tremendous, and Cabrera is clearly growing into them as the show develops.
I should throw in a word about director Susannah Martin, who has to guide the actors through this minefield, because there are all kinds of traps they could fall into. It would be pretty easy to overplay the emotions of the characters, or try to portray them as clear-cut cases of Good or Bad, Black or White, even though the script doesn't call for it. And they quite successfully avoid that pitfall. Also, it would certainly be possible to lose the audience in the maze of character and scene changes. But in both performances I have seen, that has been handled deftly. And finally, it would certainly be possible to be thrown off by the ever-changing array of choirs on the stage. They vary in size and composition and stage presence, so the actors have to be ready to adjust, and they do.
In short, there is nothing easy about this production, and all involved have clearly seen some of the traps and have avoided making any easy or trite choices.
Seeing DoubleHere is where I get to talk about seeing the play a second time, and why that's a terrific benefit in this particular case. I guess it helps that I just wrote about my experience seeing Hamilton for a second time, so it's on my mind that there are all kinds of benefits to seeing a show more than once. But the real item that prompted me to want to see the show twice before writing was that before I saw the show last week, several of my friends and family had seen the opening night performance the week before that. And it happens that was the same performance that the Chronicle's reviewer saw and reviewed.
That's interesting to me, because my reaction after seeing the show the first time was quite different from that in the review, particularly about Cabrera's performance. But then talking with my friends, they had many of the same criticisms of the opening night performance, that clarity was lacking, etc. So I was particularly keen to see what would come from my second viewing. Would it validate what I'd seen before, or perhaps tend toward what my friends had seen earlier? I'm happy to say that the performance tonight was, if anything, tighter and better than the one before. McNeal and Cabrera appear to have grown into their roles and gotten over whatever opening-night jitters marred that performance.
Also, I wanted to see how a difference choir affects the overall production. Last week, I saw the San Francisco University High School Chorus, and this week the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers. There is definitely a difference. Both choirs are terrific singers, but there is certainly a contrast between a group of high school students and a genuine (and older) community choir. And that cuts in a couple of different ways. One's reaction to seeing a gunman walk into a room full of teens is different from the same in a room full of older adults. In some ways, Shotgun set us up for this kind of different-every-night experience with last season's "roulette" casting of Hamlet. The Shotgun audience now knows that you can see the same play with a variation in casting and context that can change whole elements of the interpretation.
Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that my initial reaction on seeing the show the first time was that the Chronicle reviewer just didn't get it, or had an axe to grind or something. Now, between triangulating with others who saw the same performance reviewed and seeing it two times myself, I conclude that at least some of the criticisms that I didn't share were probably valid, though I differ on some substantive points that I'll touch on below. What it really brings home to me is that a) theater reviews based on a single viewing must necessarily be somewhat limited in their applicability, and b) reviewers that come early in the run of a show (as they generally must) are likely to encounter more production problems and acting issues than will exist later in the run. So I will try to take that into account when I read them.
The Bottom LineThe Events is a powerful play. And it's interesting because it doesn't hit you over the head most of the time. One of the Chronicle's criticisms was that this doesn't allow full impact:
Those scenes shift constantly, from one to another and then back again, at times within a single line. That seems to be in effort to focus on the way things feel, on the way characters wield devastating power over one another, instead of on the way things are, whose ambiguity is clearly part of the point of “The Events.” This is a world in which it’s impossible to state the facts definitively. Yet almost always scenes end before any stakes get a chance to mount, before you get a chance to flesh out any of Claire’s interlocutors.Here I think the reviewer missed the boat. As the structure of the play makes clear, the play is happening inside Claire's head. It is Claire, the survivor with PTSD, who cannot follow a scene to its conclusion or flesh anything out, precisely because of her trauma. That's the greatest strength of the writing, in fact. As a viewer, you can't get the emotional satisfaction of a complete scene (or sometimes even a complete sentence) because Claire can't.
Yes, the larger message is how we as a society, as human beings, comprehend and deal with the enormity of seemingly senseless, tragic events. But you wouldn't have much of a play if the Author's Message was spelled out in great flashing lights over the stage and beaten home by the characters. Greig's art here is to present us with a very difficult puzzle, and not provide the solutions. It provokes thought and discussion, which is one of the reasons Shotgun holds discussions after every performance. It is the very subtlety and ambiguity of the situation that makes this a topic worth thinking about.
I highly recommend this play. It runs through June 4, with a difference choir every night. It will give you a lot to think about.