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Broken wings, broken hearts: Blackbird awes

Broken wings, broken hearts: Blackbird awes

By Issa Polstein

In the final moment of Blackbird, Una (Sarah Johnsrude ’13) is left on stage alone, weeping. An usher walks to the front of the stage and calmly tells the crowd that it is time to leave. Surrounded by the sobs of a grieving woman, the audience gets up and processes out of the theater in a deathly silent, tension-filled line. The play gets no applause. It needs none. It asks for none.

Blackbird, by Scottish playwright David Harrower, is the story of Una (Johnsrude) and Ray (Ben Viccellio ’98). Fifteen years earlier, the two had a sexual relationship for which Ray spent three years in prison. He was 30; she was 12. Now Una confronts Ray in the trash-strewn breakroom of his office where the two engage in a long conversation, reflecting on their past to try to come to terms with their present.

Director Harry Hanson ’13 kept the play free of theatricality and showmanship. What was left was theater at its barebones finest: two people in a single room, exposing their souls to each other in front of a voyeuristic audience seated inches away. Everything about this play was clearly a deliberate choice to keep the audience on the edge of discomfort, stuck watching, never able to look away.

The set and sound design of Will Quam ’14 added to the atmosphere of discomfort. In the time before the show began, a radio ラ rather, a CD track that Quam designed to sound like a radio ラ greeted the audience with songs of the ’60s, only to be frequently interrupted by persistent static and snippets of other radio frequencies. This was so jarring at times that I wanted to walk over and shut the radio off. I also found myself listening to the ’60s music, anticipating a certain Beatles song. Alas, it never came. Nor could I do anything to stop the static. In this way, the sound design brilliantly introduced struggles both Ray and Una face throughout the play: agitation without relief and anticipation without answer.

Of course none of this could have been achieved without capable performances. Johnsrude and Viccellio clearly threw every fiber of themselves into their roles. Their commitment to the material and their mutual focus showed in the eye contact they maintained throughout the show. This was a stare-down, a face-off, a war. The two actors combatted each other, tension mounting and mounting until it broke with silence and a pause for a drink from the same water bottle ラ two angry lions sharing the same watering hole. In these moments of calm between the storms, the audience was challenged to see the characters in a different light. Viccellio did not portray Ray as a vicious pedophile seeking sexual gratification from children, which allowed us to see Una in greater detail as an average adolescent lusting after an older guy who could treat her like an adult.

While the performances were both strong in their own rights, I’m not sure as to whether they were tailored to tell the story the play intends to tell. The power dynamic was such that Viccellio’s Ray seemed sympathetic next to Johnsrude’s aggressive Una, who, for the first third of the play, appeared to want nothing more than to harass Ray. Viccellio became a frustrated man desperately trying to get Una to leave him to what little life he has left. Even as Una’s story of sexual abuse unfolded, it continued to seem as if she was antagonizing Ray for no real purpose other than to rub it in his face that he is a broken man living a broken life. The disparate ways in which the actors portrayed their characters changed the meaning and impact of the play. I wished to see more of Una’s struggle in the present moment. Why was she there? What did she want from Ray? Was she trying to come to terms with her lost childhood, seeking closure? Or was it really just a matter of hurting Ray as he had hurt her 15 years ago?

Altogether, Blackbird was unlike any show I have seen at Kenyon. Free from the relative safety of a proscenium arch or comic relief in a cozy black box, Blackbird confronted the audience with intimacy and raw emotion. As I walked out of the theater listening to Una’s tears, I couldn’t help but imagine the song of a blackbird, singing alone in the dead of night.

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