Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go - Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go - Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

 Pictured: Maureen Keiller, Karen MacDonald and Ryan Winkles. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

Pictured: Maureen Keiller, Karen MacDonald and Ryan Winkles. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go - Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

Review by James Wilkinson 

Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go is produced by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Written by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Bryn Boice. Scenic Design: Christina Todesco. Lighting Design: Jen Rock. Composer and Sound Design: Dewey Dellay. Costume Design: Nancy Leary.

Back in May of this year, I speaking with a friend and mentioned how disappointed I was after seeing Huntington Theatre’s production of Top Girls. “Oh,” he remarked, “Do you not like Caryl Churchill’s plays?” “It’s not that,” I said. “I like Caryl Churchill’s work a lot.” But hearing the words come out of my mouth triggered an involuntary double take. Wait…do I like Caryl Churchill’s plays? The question is actually harder to answer than you might think. Despite being one of England’s most respected living playwrights, you’re not as likely to see a performance of her work on this side of the pond aside from the occasional production of Top Girls or Cloud Nine. I know that I admire Caryl Churchill. I admire her quite a bit. While many writers tend to get stuck in old patterns as they enter their golden years, Churchill has, if anything, doubled down on experimenting with theatrical forms and challenging our ideas of narrative. You’re almost required to admire someone so unwilling to rest on her laurels and she has some brilliant pieces of work in her catalog, but being unable to see the work on stage makes it hard to form an opinion as to whether or not any of these experiments actually work.

This is part of what makes Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go so exciting. It’s the chance to see some non-Top Girls Churchill being performed live. The evening is made up of two one-act plays, Blue Kettle and Here We Go, originally written almost twenty years apart. Blue Kettle follows a con man as he tricks a number of women into thinking he’s the son they gave up for adoption years before. Here We Go chronicles the lead up and aftermath of a man’s death, both on this plane of existence and the next.

But to provide a description of the plot really only scratches the surface of the experience. What’s takes precedent is how the story is being told and conveying information. This is where audience reaction is going to be split because your enjoyment of the play is going depend on how much patience you have for the kind of narrative experimentation that Churchill is employing and that the company is digging into. I don’t think Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production is bad. I think it’s well-acted, well-designed and well-directed. At the same time, it’s difficult to recommend the play because there’s something so frustrating about how half-baked the whole thing feels to me.

It’s disappointing because of just how hooked I was on the start of the first scene. Designer, Christina Todesco gives the space a very elegant and simple design that’s surrounded by darkness. You’re not quite sure if you’re looking at screens or mirrors but it invokes a feeling of being thrown into a void. The lights pop up and you see a woman and a man (Karen MacDonald and Ryan Winkles), standing apart from each other. Their eyes meet and they begin to take hesitant, cautious steps towards each other. It’s such a simple movement, but the actors are able to inject it with so much emotional charge that when the two meet and MacDonald can only open her mouth, speechless, I was on the edge of my seat. In the following scene we see the same man but a different woman (Maureen Keiller), and with just the sound of woman’s voice, you can feel the weight of years of repression. It strikes a nerve because you begin to sense that the man’s intentions are a bit more nefarious.

My problem, then, is that after those early scenes and a few others, the play feels like it loses interest in the characters and shifts towards exploring the nature of language. I won’t spoil what happens because part of the appeal of the play is allowing the audience to put together what’s happening for themselves, but in short, (just so that I can try to discuss it here), the arc of the play documents a devolution of language. And once you see where the play is going, you’re just waiting for it to get there. It points to an Ionesco influence and in fact one of the best scenes in the play is a comedic scene between two women drinking tea that feels ripped from the pages of The Bald Soprano. But the reason that scene is so funny is because by that point in the evening, the play has worked via its dialogue to create distance between us and the characters. We’re no longer emotionally attached the way we were at the beginning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when the play loops back at the end and seems to want us to emotionally care again, we can’t. I couldn’t, anyway. Despite the energy the actors are bringing to the scene, you can’t unflip that switch.

I think that Here We Go is the more successful of the two plays, partly because the triptych structure allows the play to morph as it goes along. A few paragraphs ago I said that Here We Go shows the lead up and aftermath of a man’s death. While that’s technically true, that’s not how the story unfolds. First we see the women in his life meeting at his funeral. Then we get a monologue delivered by the man on the other side, waiting for judgement. Then we watch a wordless scene as the man lives out his final days in old age. The jumbled structure allows the play to act less as a traditional “hero’s journey” and more as a meditation on death, old age and humans living through cycles. In parts, it actually manages to be quite touching. Actor Ryan Winkles has a beautiful section within his monologue where he talks about the atoms of his (left behind) body going out into the universe. In the final scene, the elderly man delivers a well-placed groan and laugh that’s deeply touching. It’s remarkable how director Bryn Boice and her actors find ways to convey so much information without spoken language. In the first scene, as the women arrive at the funeral, you understand each of their relationships to the man and to each other before a single line is uttered.

I’d be fascinated to speak with audience members post-show because responses are likely to be all over the place. During the final scene of the play, a series of movements is performed again and again. When it appeared that the cycle was going to repeat again one more time, a girl sitting in the row in front of me, clearly fed up, was prompted to give an exasperated sigh and call out (in a rather loud voice), “Jesus, not again!” Contrast that with the text I got from a friend the day after I watched the production. He had already seen the show and said that the emotions of that very same scene had moved him to tears. 

I can’t repeat enough how fantastic the cast is. Because they are. And director Boice has a very clear vision in how she uses the creative team to visualize the work. But while I can applaud the company’s attempt to try something more adventurous and for bringing more of Churchill’s work to Boston audiences, it ends up being something that I admire more than I enjoyed. The pieces are here. What’s missing is the picture.

Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go is playing at the Sorenson Black Box at Babson College, November 7-18, 2018.

For tickets and more information, visit: www.commshakes.org

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