Sound and Debt

Production photo by Julieta Cervantes

What do we feel we are owed when we walk in the theatre? Put aside all lofty expectations of we hope will transpire—all the talk about being ‘transported’ (whatever that really means), or discussions about the elusive bits of wisdom or morality that can be made clearest on stage, or even the communal experience of being in tune with something live and ephemeral. Put aside even the notion of being entertained and temporary escapism and the easing of whatever pain ails you. I mean at bare minimum, what is the least we expect to receive in return for our commitment and money? Does the show (or Soho Rep in this case) owe us something as an audience? I suspect most theatre-goers believe, whether they admit it or not, that they are owed the chance to understand what they are seeing, that they will leave the theatre in the know.

Debt and what is owed in life are the central moving pieces in Samara, Richard Maxwell’s newest and mysterious offering directed by Sarah Benson. The show begins with a character named the Messenger (Jasper Newell) and his attempt to collect a debt owed him by the Supervisor (Roy Faudree). After the Supervisor balks at the payment, he tells the Messenger, “You know there’s a whole picture that you’re not going to see. And I’m not going to trouble you with.” The line is as useful for the audience as it is perplexing to the Messenger. Maxwell consistently deprives the audience of conventional theatrical context, instead creating a world where questions of setting, time, place, and standard narrative are of little use. In their place is sound: the haunting score written by folk/Americana hero Steve Earle (who also provides sparse narration and ominous stage directions) and Maxwell’s poetic text.

During his confrontation with the Supervisor, the Messenger purchases the debt of an innkeeper who lives several miles away. The Messenger sets out across a violent frontier that evokes simultaneously a morally deprived 19th century Old West, á la the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. When the Messenger arrives at the inn to collect his debt, he finds the debtor has died and the inn has been taken over by the Manan (Becca Blackwell) and the Drunk (Paul Lazar). The Messenger chooses to stay at the inn indefinitely until his debt is paid, throwing the lives of the Manan and the Drunk upside-down, forcing them to make increasingly rash, violent decisions.

Earle’s score (played brilliantly by Ivan Goff on Uileann pipes and Anna Wray on various percussion) is essential to the play’s mood. While his folk music gears towards an almost relentless sense of empathy, here Earle uses music not to atone for the characters and their misdeeds, but rather guide them (and us) through the wilderness. When words fail to explain, as they often do here, the music is there to catch us. It doesn’t fill the gap entirely, but it does help soothe and provide an emotional context amongst the confusion.  

Samara’s bend towards the auditory forces the audience to listen far more carefully than what is typically required in contemporary theatre. This is not to dismiss many of the striking visuals (Matt Frey’s lighting design is especially noteworthy), but the language demands an extra level of concentration that can be at times equally thrilling and frustrating. Maxwell’s words exist right on the cusp of insight—living in the charged moments when clarity is being approached, but never quite reached. There are numerous builds that lead astray and several questions that go unanswered. An elaborate puzzle is laid out, but the mystery never fully matures for the audience—at least not inside the theatre. But if you are willing to allow the show to stick in the brain just long enough, letting the words and sounds marinate, a bizarre yet affecting wisdom begins to form.

The larger, non-monetary debts that play out in Samara begin to take weight with time: what do people feel is owed them in life? What do the living owe the dead? What happens to people when they don’t get what they feel is owed them and how far are people willing to go to bridge that gap? Every character in Samara is lacking in some way: deficient in terms they can never fully elucidate. Similarly, I sense that many people will leave Samara feeling like the show still owes them something, that it did not fulfill its minimum obligation—that they are not now in the know.

But here’s the thing: theatre owes you nothing; you owe theatre your attention.

Here’s the other thing: the world owes you nothing; you owe the world a death.

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