ASP Delivers Absurd Tragedy With Brilliant ‘God’s Ear’ (5 Stars)
‘God’s Ear’ – Written by Jenny Schwartz; Directed by Thomas Derrah; Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco; Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design/Composition by Edward Young. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at Davis Square Theatre, 155 Elm St., Somerville through April 12th.
God’s Ear, the brilliant production now being served up by The Actors Shakespeare Project at the Davis Square Theater, is alternately one of the funniest and most painful works I have seen in a long time, which in no way implies that it is painfully funny. There are vignettes throughout that may have you howling, but they are never enough to keep you distracted from the reality that the basic plotline is about the death of a 10 year old boy and how his grieving family deals (or doesn’t deal) with the tragedy – which may be the point.
I must admit that based on what I read prior to seeing God’s Ear that I was expecting a play that was so focused on the language that it would be an excruciatingly clever and inaccessible work – and I’m happy to report that it is anything but. The play does use language in a way that I’ve never experienced in my brief stint as a theater reviewer, but it is so effective in communicating the bottled up emotions of the characters that the writing is nothing short of genius. The narrative is completely non-linear, but by the play’s end we have a fairly clear picture of the story, even if the way it’s told seems to be from the point of view of someone suffering from a psychotic break.
We are first introduced to Mel and Ted, the parents of the deceased boy, as he is dying in the hospital. “He’s in a coma… He’s hooked up to a respirator… He has a pulse… He has brain damage,” Mel says as she peddles furiously on an exercise bike. The characters in the play rarely speak to each other in a connected way, but instead communicate via a series of puns, cliches, proverbs and old advertising slogans, but through the nonsensical mishmash we understand what the family members are trying to convey – namely fear and a hopelessness that nothing will ever be right again. Often the point is driven home by just one word or phrase that rings true amongst the rest of the linguistic clutter. Interestingly, there may be all of five minutes of “normal” dialogue between the characters, and weirdly enough, half of it comes during a conversation that involves the Tooth Fairy and a talking GI Joe action figure.
This is a play that probably wouldn’t have worked very well in less capable hands than those of director Thomas Derrah and the talented cast. As Mel, Tamara Hickey manically spews out her character’s unfiltered thoughts as fast as they can form, and at times you’re just waiting for her to just run out of breath and collapse. Ted (Gabriel Kuttner) copes with the tragic death and his wife’s deteriorating mental state with booze and affairs, which of course only worsen Mel’s condition. Then there’s the surviving child, and that’s just what she’s doing. Josephine Elwood convincingly plays Lanie, the tweenish-aged daughter who wishes she was Helen Keller (and also adds some nice vocals during the play’s occasional musical interludes).
One of the best scenes comes when Ted and Mel are recounting the day when their son passed, and Mel asks Ted, “Was I like this?” and sobs uncontrollably as if the news had just been delivered. It is alternately horrifying and riveting, and we’re brought right back to what the moment must have been like. But when Ted answers no, that’s not how she was, she tries a second, more hysterical approach, before Ted explains that she essentially had very little outward reaction to the news, and we realize that the internalization of her manic behavior is just her grief squirting out the only way it can.
The rest of the cast is terrific as well, and Marianna Bassham is especially noteworthy as the boozy woman whom Ted (presumably) sleeps with on the road. Bassham also submits a nice vocal turn during a musical interlude in a disturbingly funny duet with Ted’s drinking buddy Guy (David Rich). The musical numbers throughout the play are quite good and add a nice counterpoint to the intensity of much of the rest of the action, while piling on the absurdity. John Kuntz as both GI Joe and a cross-dressing airline stewardess is hysterical, and Ann Carpenter as the Tooth Fairy adds a nice South Boston grandmotherly touch. The set design by Cristina Todesco has an almost dream-like feel, as the floor and the walls of the set are completely covered in the kind of heavy opaque plastic contractors use when they are working in an occupied home, which may or may not be a metaphor for the reconstruction of the character’s lives.
This work speaks to a lot of how many of us deal with grief and turmoil; That if we can just find and say and believe the right proverb or slogan to comfort us or to make some sense of a tragedy – all of the pain will go away. But the reality is that we just have to sit with it and let time do its work, and we get a glimpse of that at the end of this terrific piece. The intimate setting of the Davis Square Theatre is a boon to this production, and it’s a must-see show for those who appreciate great writing, acting, and a few laughs to take the sting out of the tragedy. For more info, go to: http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/gods-ear