Running Away From the One With the Knife
I like to apply the Greenbergian dichotomy from visual art to live performance: on one side is kitsch, the realm where narrative is easily understood and the mimesis of the real world is blatant. Good and evil are clearly delineated, and you leave with a lesson learned. On the opposite side is abstraction (Greenberg’s avant-garde), the land of collage and snippets of narrative. In the most extreme example of this, the performance is an aesthetic experience that washes over you: meaning has to be looked for and laid on top of form, and people tend to become aesthetic stand-ins rather than real, live humans.
I believe good performance lies somewhere in between these two poles. It is (often) both formalist and meaningful; human emotion and experience come through despite—or because of—abstracted forms. Narrative is cut up and manipulated yet can still be understood. In altering reality, life somehow becomes more real.
This is how I would describe Running Away From the One With the Knife, a new play running at the Chocolate Factory until March 28. Written by site-specific theater maker Aaron Landsman and directed by recent Bessie winner Mallory Catlett, the show is a feat of non-linear storytelling, depicting the devastation hiding behind daily life. This has much to do with the nuanced performances of the play’s actors: Juliana Francis-Kelly portrays Sarah, a lawyer who describes herself as fastidious and measured. She speaks with a clipped cadence, her eye contact slightly off; she wants to be sure of herself but isn’t quite there. As we learn, this is because of her recently deceased sister, Christina (Kate Benson), a suicide-obsessed woman who seems to be stuck in an ongoing angst-ridden adolescence. We meet Christina through flashback scenes (some real, some imagined?) after Sarah bonds with James Himelsbach’s Guillaume, an intimacy-averse monk and maintenance man who had grown close to Christina.
Suicide is the ever-present conflict: Sarah hides her household chemicals and knives from her sister. Guillaume saves Christina from her multi-pronged approach of pill popping plus plastic bag suffocation plus drowning. It’s hard to watch, but it’s necessary: suicide could so easily be a nebulous, imaginary idea, but here we’re forced to look at it.
These scenes are presented as cohesive vignettes, marked off by shifts in the play’s moveable set pieces, designed by Jim Findlay. This creates a steady rhythm, along with the onslaught of words written on the sets and on small boards. Uncertainty becomes expected, as does death. Christina repeats her “okay voice” over and over again: “How are you? I’m okay. I’m feeling better.” It is false, but the longer she speaks, the more I believe her. As Sarah says about Christina’s suicide, which we ultimately never see: It was inevitable.
Poetic justice never happens. The play fades out as quickly as it faded in. Christina is dead. Sarah can go to Thailand. Guillaume might hug her. The coffee we heard and smelled percolating at the beginning of the play is gone, but they’ll brew another pot tomorrow.