Theater Review: BLACKBIRD (Rogue Machine in L.A.)

by Harvey Perr on June 12, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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LEARNING TO FLY WITH BROKEN WINGS

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these broken wings and learn to fly/All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”  Would it have been too obvious to play the haunting Beatles song either before the start of David Harrower’s unsettling Blackbird (which is receiving a compelling and disturbingly stark production at the Rogue Machine) or, better still, after the lights go down on its final image? It seems to this reviewer that the lyrics are the inspiration for the title of Harrower’s play.

In a break room of an office building, cluttered with the debris of plastic cups and empty food containers and other signs of the carelessness and indifference of workers, a very nervous man is confronted by a much younger woman whose face is taut with tension. Outside the frosted glass of the room, workers walk by or knock at the door, and at times even press their faces against the glass in order to see what we see. Of course, what they see is unclear, as it is, at first, to us. Slowly, revelation by revelation, we find out that the woman, Una, and the man, Ray, (or Peter, as he is now known) did indeed know each other, years ago when Una was twelve years old and, between them, they share a dark and ugly secret.

It doesn’t seem right to give more away than this, except, of course, that it is hard to talk about a play which takes its theme and wrings out of it every possible variation in its effort to get down to the truths beyond the truth just as it lays bare the lies these two tormented characters have lived with.  What is remarkable about the play is that, just below the surface of the unsavory and brutally complex relationship which Una and Ray share, there lies a love story. And, Robin Larsen, who has directed with a combination of clinical detachment and deep compassion, brings to every facet of the work a searing humanity and a quietly powerful urgency.

The uncertainty of the play’s opening moments looked at first like opening night jitters until it became clear that it was the uncertainty of the characters that was being expressed. Corryn Cummins’s Una will probably deepen with time; at the moment, she seems to still be in search of the confusion which lurks in the twisted heart of her character and, in her still moments, she doesn’t fully register the turmoil beneath the stillness. But Sam Anderson is giving a brilliant and devastating portrait of a man in the throes of a never-ending pain; and he takes the cadences of Harrower’s writing and elevates them into a rhythmic pattern of hesitancy and panic.

In the New York production four seasons ago, the play often seemed to be swallowed up by an overstuffed production. Although it is a work of big ideas, it is basically a small play, and it is more comfortable in the tiny space of Theatre/Theater, gracefully configured by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s eerily realistic break room.

But I hasten to repeat that if we could have heard the Beatles song, it might have ended on a note of hopefulness. The shock and ambiguity of the play’s last moments leave us instead in a kind of numbed despair. I think Blackbird, at heart, contains both despair and hope, without one canceling the other out. But Blackbird provides more proof that Rogue Machine is one of our most intelligent and vibrant theater companies.

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

photos by John Flynn

Blackbird
scheduled to close July 25
for tickets, visit http://www.roguemachinetheatre.com

EXTENDED THROUGH SEPTEMBER 12!

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