Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sleazy Peasy: Blackbird is an Intense Encounter at Theatre South

Posted By on Wed, Mar 15, 2017 at 7:10 PM

click to enlarge Ray and Una (Tony Isbell,  Fiona Battersby).
  • Ray and Una (Tony Isbell, Fiona Battersby).
I'm glad I've seen Blackbird once. I'm especially glad to have seen a production so thoughtfully staged and exquisitely acted as the one you'll discover should you venture out to TheatreSouth this weekend. Frankly, for good acting, and effective, economical stagecraft, I'm not sure I can recommend it enough. At the same time, I'm not sure why I ever would.  Why would anybody recommend anything so relentlessly uncomfortable? Unfolding in real time over 90 excruciating minutes, David Harrower's Blackbird tells the story of Ray, who's surprised at work by Una, the woman he kidnapped and molested 15-years earlier when he was 40 and she was 12. In the intimate black box of TheatreSouth, audiences are transformed into peeping Toms, observing a squalid, trash-strewn company break room while two already torn apart people tear themselves and each other apart again and again and again.

Maybe I can recommend it because it's perfect. Or close to. Because it's certainly not pleasant or fun.

Whatever else it may be, this 21st-Century Lolita redux, with its stark black and white memories of street lamps, phone-booths, and boarding houses, is a noir of the first order, with an inappropriate set of perverse expectations. Audiences, against all instinct and will, are forced to accept Blackbird — a story of kidnapping and abuse that's explicitly understood to be abuse — as a tale of love gone bad. It only gets darker from there.

The audience hasn't been assembled to re-try Ray, who's played here, to sputtering, sometimes paralyzed perfection, by Tony Isbell. Ray did six tough years in prison, and admits the crime, even if he disagrees with the particulars of how it was portrayed in court. He did his stretch, got out, changed his name, took a nondescript management job in some nondescript office in one of those nondescript buildings with nondescript signage everybody passes on the road all day long and never thinks twice about. Now Ray lives in a nondescript married, filthy, cluttered hell. At least he's not molesting little girls anymore, though. It's not like he was ever a predator, or the kind of person who gets turned on by little kids. Or so he stammers. It was just that one time. Just that one very special time.

Una, impeccably played by Fiona Battersby, is more vivid, wobbly, and evidently broken. Is she here for closure? Revenge? She'd been a needy kid, and vulnerable. Ray validated her when she wasn't getting it elsewhere. Her version of the story, told from the perspective of a furious adult who can't remember real innocence, staggers between puppy love, obsession, betrayal and fear. Reliving the story as a sexually frank adult, it's easy for observers to forget she wasn't yet a teenager when she first felt these feelings. When she and the man she loved and idolized and still fixates on snuck out of town, to a place he knew about where nobody would ask questions and they could be together. But it's always right there.

Blackbird was inspired by real life events, but still owes a bit to Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, which tells a similar, if less sleazy and immediate story. And it may owe a bit to David Mamet's Oleanna too. But, in terms of pure function, the play it resembles most — and improves on considerably — is Doubt. To its very intense, ugly, surprise ending, Blackbird leaves us wondering whether or not Ray's reformed and sorry for an unforgivable thing he did only once at the very lowest point in his nondescript life, or if he's always been a creeper.  Maybe this awful thing we've been asked to accept as a love story was nothing more than what it looked liked all along. Maybe it's happening all over again.

Blackbird's built like a house of cards. One shaky move or false note by either of the actors and everything collapses. With Adam Remsen in the director's chair, this little drama stands tall. Production is bare bones — perfect for a young company dedicated to "small, essential" theater.

Dates, times and ticket information here.

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