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SARAH: A Review

Facing the Stage



Fringe Fest is over, but the New Orleans theatre community chugs on. Down in the Bywater, a performance collective known as Skin Horse is keeping their production of Sarah going well past the theatrical smorgasboard of mid-November. Today, Helen Jaksch reviews the site-specific work.

 

SARAH is Skin Horse Theater’s latest theatrical experiment. A site-specific piece paying homage to the cinematic and the supernatural, it follows an evening between a professor named Caleb, played by Evan Spigelman, and his troubled wife Kate, Veronica Hunsinger-Loe, where nothing is what it seems. With help from director Nat Kusinitz, playwright Brian Fabry Dorsam creates a mundane household dinner party where shadows and darkness lurk in the corners. Though still a little rough around the edges, Skin Horse Theater’s SARAH is an unsettling and haunting site-specific piece that makes for one hell of a night of theatre.

 

READ: Skin Horse Theater Talks About Setting SARAH

 

Edward Albee would be proud. The text generates a real sense of mystery that supports a suspenseful build-up over the 70-minute performance. What is in the back room? Why can no one go in there? Where did all these antique furniture pieces and paintings come from? Who is Sarah? But suspense is only effective when something is kept in the liminal space. In between. Suspended.

 

In SARAH, the actors let the story get ahead of them. I knew from the moment Kate came down the black spiral stairs at the top of the show what was coming around the bend. It was written on the faces and bodies of each performer in the ensemble. They pulled the metaphorical rug out from under themselves, the metaphorical rug being Dorsam’s text and the incredibly rich space at 1239 Congress designed and dressed by Skin Horse. Instead of playing at Dorsam’s everyday and letting it unravel, we started with the threads loose. The play’s important climax and reveal was watered down because the surprise was not a surprise.

SARAH
Where: 1239 Congress St., Bywater
When: Dec. 1-4, 11 p.m.
Tickets: $10 (Limited Seating. Reserve tickets here.)

 

There was also a palpable friction between the hyper-real environment of the living room and the performance styles of the ensemble. The smoke of burnt asparagus was coming from the kitchen. It stormed the evening I saw the show and the visiting friends had speckles of rain on their sweaters. The actors ate warm food at a kitchen table. Candles burnt. Things were broken. Yet the performances did not match. With the exception of Kacey Skye Musik’s Sam, the performances were based in mannerism and gestures. Musik, and to some extent Hunsinger-Loe, grounded her performance in some sense of sincerity and I was invested in her character and her story. The gestures of the other performers were specific and cleanly executed, but they felt somewhat flat and false in the carefully crafted world of the play. The most glaring example was Evan Spigelman’s use of his glasses. As Caleb, he took them on and off. He gestured with them. He put them in his pocket. But he did not use or wear glasses like someone who wears them on a normal basis. This may seem nitpicky, but with the audience in such close proximity to the performers, every gesture is magnified. It takes on significance. And gesture without truth that does not serve the story rings hollow, no matter how you slice it. The piece needed less focus on gesture and more focus on genuine communication between performer and performer.

 

I also have to take issue with Veronica Hunsinger-Loe’s costumes. I am not sold on the choice of giving Kate a long flowing nightgown to wear while moving furniture from the attic to the first floor of their home, but that is personal taste. Spigelman’s costumes, however, did not fit. His pants were too long. His shirts too big. This may have been a choice, but he was swallowed by fabric. The costume wore him.

 

All that said, Skin Horse has created a bold and ambitious piece of theatre that should not be missed. The audience sat in chairs along the walls of the living room, both in and outside the performance. We attended the dinner party by proxy. We could feel the tension of the room and could not escape it. We were trapped. It was a smart and effective move on Skin Horse’s part. The performance takes advantage of the living room’s architecture and affective possibilities. The floors were rough and worn. The furniture was old and faded. The space felt haunted and heavy. Characters cook in the kitchen that we did not see. Kate and Caleb have a fight behind closed doors that we could only hear. SARAH is site-specific work at its finest.

 

Bradley Black’s sound design coupled with Spigelman’s and Anna Henschel’s lighting design was the triumph of the piece. Black’s sound crept through the walls. It bumps around the ceiling. It is a subtle and unsettling underscore to this piece that is both film-like and theatrical. The lighting mirrored the text. It was seemingly straightforward: wall lighting, lamps, candles. But as characters scratch open old wounds and emotions reach their peak, the lights responded. They flickered and dimmed. They switched on and off, and returned back to normal in the blink of an eye. SARAH takes a more comprehensive approach to the technical design, engaging smells, sounds, and sight to enhance the experience and to enliven the playing space. And the work paid off. There are truly five characters in this piece: four actors, one living room. I only wish the bold technical form did not manage to outpace the performers so often.

 

The most impressive feat of the night was the fact that SARAH genuinely scared me. Fear is not easily created in a theatrical environment where things feel safe and separate. We were inches from the performers. The only exit is the door you came in through. But your feet would not move. And your eyes were glued to the action. It is a perfect storm of technical elements, story, and performances that achieve that thrilling moment of terror/horror. And though I believe they undermined the full impact of this scare, I sincerely applaud Skin Horse for what they have done with this piece.

 

The actors did not appear for the curtain call. We are able to commend the effort of the performers and the production team, but this age-old gesture of clapping to dissipate the play’s ghosts was in vain. The unease hung in the air of the space and trailed closely behind while heading for the car. 

 

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