Valentina Olarte and Greg Dean in Blackbird. Photo by Samuel Herrera.
Written by: David Harrower
Directed by: Matt Hune
Company: Hune Company
Run dates: November 25 – December 12, 2015
What to do as a critic when you see a show late in the run, with no intention of reviewing, but then walk away with the urge to say something anyway? OK – to be fair, when doesn’t a critic have something to say? We are an opinionated lot after all, analyzing production, playwright and performance even when we’re watching off the clock. Or at least I am. In the case of Hune Company’s Blackbird and in the spirit of ‘if you have something nice to say, say it swiftly and loudly’, my response is to offer up a few musings in a kind of stream of critical thought-type thing. There may not be time for a comprehensive review, but that doesn’t necessitate a blank page. What can I say, it’s hard to keep a critic quiet!
To keep everyone in the loop – the gist of the story:
A twelve-year-old girl named Una and a forty-something year old man named Ray had sex. Actually it was a bit more than sex, it was a brief affair and it shattered both of their lives. Ray went to jail and Una henceforth carried the shameful label of ‘that’ girl. Both of them suffer the psychological scars of their actions and neither has seen or spoken to each other since. Until now.
David Harrower’s 2005 Olivier winning play, Blackbird, brings the pair face to face fifteen years later. Una has Ray cornered in the lunchroom of his workplace. Is it a confrontation? A pardon? Revenge? Reunion? What does she want from him and what does she need to give? More importantly how honest are the pair capable of being with each other and what are we to take away from their encounter?
We have 70 tense minutes to find out.
Right then, in no particular order, my thoughts/takeaways:
Apparently a cramped living room is the ideal place to see a show about child sexual abuse
Twenty of us sitting squishily shoulder to shoulder on folding chairs in a residential townhouse living room, boxed in on all sides with black curtains. We are here watching the uncomfortable aftermath and truths of an inappropriate and illegal affair play out on the thumbnail picture box stage. Such is the conceit of Hune Company’s Living Room series that brings audiences into company founder Matt Hune’s modern townhouse/theater space for the 2015/6 inaugural season. In this instance, it’s a triumph of place and play. What could be distractingly claustrophobic in the face of certain narratives here feels inclusively voyeuristic and intimate.
We are like flies on the cramped walls listening with a mixture of itchy uneasiness and rubbernecking obsession to Una and Ray circle around what happened back then, what’s happened since and what might happen next. We are unusually close to the action and each other and the energy this creates ripples through all of us and heightens our experience and understanding of the play.
It would be a stretch to call this production site specific, but the venue here is certainly more than simply a theater and it adds greatly to the success of the show.
The right man for the job
Greg Dean as Ray is a marvel of blinks, hand ticks, defensive poses and all manner of body language illustrating discomfort, fear and a host of bubbling emotions. Ray has done his time and worked hard to move past the incident he classifies as the result of a tough period in his life, never bending to the belief that his behavior was pedophilic. “You know I was never one of them”, Ray asks Una as he rambles off all the reasons he’s not like those other sickos who get sexually turned on by just any child. Harrower makes no judgments on his characters and instead lets each one tells their truths as they see it. Dean runs with this leeway and with a frustrated softness that wrenches our understanding of what a man who slept with a 12-year-old is made of, allows us to clearly hear if not altogether agree with Ray’s rationalizations.
The even righter woman for the job
As compelling as Dean’s Ray is, this show belongs to University of Houston BFA senior Valentina Olarte as Una. A mixture of angry adult and wounded child, Una is in many ways a more difficult character to wrap our heads around. On the one hand, she flirted with Ray, encouraged his attentions, fell in love, and eagerly ran away with him. On the other hand she realizes that her willingness as partner (sexual and otherwise) was a choice she had no business making at that age. She knows she was taken advantage of. Even abused. So why then does she still seem to care what he thinks of her? Why does she seem to be teasing and tempting him? Una brings the true disquiet to the play and Olarte plays the conflicting sides of this terribly injured and confused character with the elegance of a far more senior actor.
Never rushing the emotion, Olarte darts and weaves between ups and downs, energy and silence maturity and child-like reasoning. We see the lucid adult when she tells Ray, “I didn’t ask difficult questions. I didn’t even know what to ask!” We feel her anger when she declares, “I hate the life I’ve had, I wanted you to know that.” Most brutally we learn that she still wants his desire and attention as a kind of proof of her worthiness. Olarte gives equal consideration to all sides of Una with loving care, allowing us to see neither simply a victim nor a manipulator, but instead a complex flawed woman. Where those flaws came from or who is responsible for rendering them so large is up to the audience to decide.
Interesting side note here, Olarte has a gentle South American accent that works wonderfully in the character’s favor. Much of Harrower’s naturalistic dialogue in the show has Una questioning Ray on his motives or describing her upset around the events of their affair. In both cases Una seems to be figuring out what she feels as she speaks. It sounds as if the thought process is happening in real-time with all the struggles that come with first understanding. I have no idea if it was a planned affectation or organic, but Olarte’s manner of speaking which seems to at times struggle with the English words (as if she’s translating speedily in her head) along with her pleasing accent and occasional stutter over a phrase makes Una’s whole process seem all the more truthful and vulnerable.
Direction, direction, direction
Nothing happens in a play without a director’s hand and here Matt Hune’s fingerprints land splendidly. Hune dials up the tension from the minute the show starts and never takes his foot off the gas pedal. Even in the exhale moments of this play, we know that another pull on the line will hook us into writhing once again and thanks to Hune’s never overdoing the drama, we are ready and willing for it. Straining to listen to every word in the taut 70 minutes, we are rewarded with performances that feel as though they are bursting out of the small space, resonating long after the show is done.
My one quibble – isn’t there always one?
From a technical aspect, there are minimal touches to highlight the action on the teeny stage. Ambient moody music is employed to punctuate some of the headier scenes to greater or lesser effect. At times the interludes meld nicely and enhance the emotion, at other times it intrudes on the intimacy of the action on stage.
The lighting however is almost always distracting. Every change in brightness on stage is preceded by a loud ‘click’ offstage as if a household switch was being thrown. Which, considering we are in a living room, it may be. Look, you gotta use what you got, I get that, however the distracting noise pulls us out of the play and results in so little visual impact that I wish they had just left well enough alone. This production has enough subtle shades all on its own without the need for a dimmer switch.