I’ve been a theater-goer for decades, a choral singer on and off throughout my life, and more recently, a playwright. But last night I experienced theater in a completely new and transforming way. I was both audience and performer in an incredible play at Shotgun’s Ashby Stage, and I have to say–it felt amazing to be part of it.
Scottish-born David Greig wrote The Events in response to the 2011 massacre in Oslo that left 77 people dead. Though the circumstances differ, Greig explores the painful aftermath for one particular survivor of a mass shooting, Claire. Part of Greig’s vision of the play was to include actual community choruses onstage–a different one each night.
Which is how I got involved. Shotgun put out word that it was seeking both intact community choruses and people with choral music background to learn songs and perform them in the role of the play’s choir. One large four-hour music rehearsal introduced us to the songs back in late April. Then we were on our own to learn and practice the music, using mp3s that were sent to us, although presumably some of the choirs used their own practice time as well. But for those of us who responded to the call as individuals, we didn’t practice together until the night of our performance, in a two-hour rehearsal that also included blocking, cues, and the addition of a few spoken lines.
Claire, exquisitely portrayed by the talented Julia McNeal, is a minister and leads a community choir. (And having been in a few choirs myself, I think she did an admirable job of conducting us onstage.) While her partner and her therapist want Claire to focus on herself, Claire is driven to search out anyone whom she thinks may be able to answer the one question she has–why?
Caleb Cabrera takes on the twelve other roles in the play, which includes the young perpetrator (known only as The Boy), but he also portrays her partner, a cab driver, a journalist, The Boy’s father, a friend, a classmate of The Boy, a choir member, a politician, her psychiatrist, a man named Gary, and even a baby. And he does so, quite effectively, without costume change, without props, and without gimmicky affectations. Although initially confusing, the blending of characters highlights the omnipresence of The Boy in her thoughts. In a particularly chilling scene, Cabrera flips back and forth between portraying The Boy and Claire’s partner, Katrina, putting us in Claire’s head, which, of course, is a confusing place to be. As The Boy, Cabrera leaps, runs, climbs, and even does jumping jacks, in what is certainly a taxing physical performance.
Director Susannah Martin made some bold choices for this production but never left the audience hanging. For example, she extended the boundaries of the stage by having The Boy climb ape-like alongside the audience.
Angrette McCloskey’s set was simple, focusing on the choir’s practice room, which allowed multiple settings without disruptive scene changes and also kept Claire essentially trapped in the place where her life changed forever. The particular challenge of creating a space for the choir that was both practical and not too intrusive was creatively solved with a slightly recessed nook.
Because Shotgun stuck to the playwright’s vision of using a different choir each time, it was a huge job to wrangle numerous singers, schedule rehearsals, and patiently explain the same blocking to a new group every night of the performance. For that, Choir Captain Brady Brophy-Hilton deserves a special award.
And for being the true musical director beneath the dramatic surface, Lisa Quoresimo was an effective leader in a quiet, unobtrusive way, performing a miracle–taking 16 to 20 different singers each night and pulling from them polished, moving renditions of eight songs whose origins varied from traditional to Kanye West. Bravo!
The script was intricate and thought-provoking, the direction was creative while remaining respectful of the playwright’s vision, the acting was stellar, and the music that was written for the play was hauntingly beautiful.
But what really took hold of me was the thought of being part of something so great in a number of ways: the camaraderie of fellow choral members (most of whom I’d never met before that night), watching the play unfold before me while I was onstage myself (singers were not given scripts so that they could experience the play as a true audience), and knowing that the journey that Claire was on is not a fictional occurrence because unfortunately a growing number of people are sadly going through similar recoveries. And some are not recovering.
And the speech that I got to recite about humankind’s relationship to apes and bonobos, which seemed oddly out of place during our tech rehearsal, may have been what made the most connections for me after I rolled it all around in my head after the play.
But I don’t want to give away any more details than I already have because you should see this play for yourself if you possibly can. And after you do, let’s talk!
The Events has been extended through June 4 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.