Truth, Lies and Acting: Juliana Francis Kelly’s “The Reenactors”

Blair Busbee, Mieko Gavia, Jody Christopherson, Ayesha Jordan in The Reenactors. Photo by Zen Lael

The first thing I learned about Juliana Francis Kelly’s The Reenactors (at Abrons Arts Center through Dec. 13) came from George Hunka. Back in early November, he wrote:

Even the press release seems surprised: “After over two decades of non-linearity, experimental theatre artists Juliana Francis Kelly and Tony Torn have created a naturalistic play inspired by real events,” it says — a docudrama of sorts, based on stories ripped from the headlines? With a plot and characters and all?

He went on to note that “it turns out that there’s still something meta” going on here, and indeed, he’s quite right. I saw it on opening night last week, and the very first gesture of the play included Torn—the nominal director—stepping onstage to make a brief announcement. Actor Blair Busbee, one of the leads in the ensemble cast, claimed Torn, was unable to make the performance due to a conflict (she was supposedly stuck on set filming somewhere—if she even exists at all). So instead, Torn continued, the role would be performed by Rebekah Brockman. Brockman would be on-book, Torn let us know, but he claimed she knew the character well, having workshopped the role during its time at The Civilians R&D Lab.

Anyway, after Torn left the stage, the show kicked off, with who I could only assume was Brockman playing a scene and reading—or seeming to read—from a script. Except that mere minutes in, the scene cuts. Brockman steps out of the role and begins asking the director (now played by Ean Sheehy) about what she’s supposed to be doing in the scene.

It’s kind of brilliant. By “kind of” I mean that in fact Torn’s announcement was actually completely true, yet—due to the bizarre meta nature of Kelly’s play—the very real script Brockman was using as a crutch was almost immediately recontextualized by the play as a prop. And yes, Torn is really the director of the play, not an actor, and Busbee probably (I have no proof to the contrary) actually exists, and so on.

How’s that for lemonade out of lemons?

The plot of Kelly’s play (which credits no character names in the program, so I apologize if any of this response seems to conflate the actual performer with their character) concerns a young actress (Brockman) who’s rehearsing what appears to be a low-budget off-off-Broadway two-hander with another actor (Dylan Dawson). Very early on, we learn that Brockman’s character has begun a secretive affair with the playwright/director (Ean Sheehy). After sex one evening, Brockman’s character confronts the playwright about something he’s written/directed her character doing. It doesn’t feel right, she argues, it’s too shrill, it just doesn’t seem to make sense. After a little pressure, the playwright finally simply explains that he wrote it as he experienced it. Which she finds pretty shocking, since it implies that not only is the story in the play true, but that the writer/director in fact also had sex with the woman her character was based on.

The rest of The Reenactors is relatively (I use that term guardedly) straightforward. After discovering the play-within-the-play is based on a true story (as is The Reenactors itself, though you’d only know that based on Torn’s opening statement and the comment about The Civilians’ lab), the actor played by Brockman sets out to research the truth of its incredible claims: That her character was a seemingly accidental survivor of a teen suicide pact that played out some years before in suburban New Jersey. Horrified at what she sees as the playwright/director’s appropriation of someone else’s experiences—as well as being creeped out at the fact he was having sex with her while she played a role based on one of his past lovers—she basically tries to honor the truth of the character by tracking the real person down. Or maybe it’s just to sate her own prurient interest in the story she’s become bound up in.

Her research leads her to the strip club where the suicide pact survivor had supposedly worked, where she meets a troubled dancer (Kaili Vernoff) who claims to have known the survivor. As the actor tries to wrest control of her character from the playwright, she finds herself in a bizarre sort of duel, as her own actions and statements wind up folded back into his script re-writes each day as they race toward opening night.

I won’t go too much further into the story—not only do I not want to ruin it, but it risks becoming incredibly confusing trying to keep straight the actor, the character, the “actor” as character, and the “actor’s character.” But I think readers get the drift. Kelly’s play is an exploration of fiction and truth, the power of art to reveal truth to us, the power of acting, the violence of art, and so on. It’s layer upon layer of meta all wrapped around some core of seemingly unknowable truth, which has to do with why we would choose to live or to die. As such, it’s as much deconstruction-through-realism as it is meta-theater, and sort of mind-bendingly clever in that regard.

Kelly’s isn’t the only play to have touched on these themes this year. Richard Maxwell’s Isolde, which premiered at Abrons last year and made the jump to Theatre for a New Audience this fall, was also partly based around an extended riff on realist acting. Tory Vazquez plays an actor who can no longer remember her lines, which makes her character impossible to approach from any psychological realist perspective (since the actor playing the character can never really “know” what that character’s experience is, or else wouldn’t have the role). But Maxwell plays off the gag subtly, while Torn and Kelly bring acting to the fore.

Subtlety is indeed the key to Torn’s direction here. Like design, which you often only really notice when it fails, it’s easy to miss how deftly the cast is handling the double-act they’re required to perform. His actors have to act at being actors. It’s not even just that they have to play multiple characters in a show, but rather that the have to play characters who in turn are playing other characters. And it all must be done with a sort of honesty and sincerity this sort of gambit (which is usually done as a mockery of actors’ pretensions) doesn’t usually ask for.

Leaving the theater, my guest and I struggled for some time to find a way to talk about the show. Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Kelly’s text doesn’t exactly offer the sort of closure a typical play might. While the play features a climax, the climax occurs through the realization of excellent acting performances, which spiral out into a sort of high-wire act on all the performers’ parts. It’s dazzling and fun. But the troubling moral issues the text raises through the story? Well, you probably won’t be shocked that Kelly doesn’t provide much in the way of answers.

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