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Burn This
By Lanford Wilson
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
Black Cat Theatre, Maplewood MO
May 12, 2012

I came home from this show Saturday night thinking “how am I supposed to write a review of this play?” Seriously. I had just spent an evening with my eyes riveted to the stage as four actors took all their emotions and talents and laid them bare, leaving me with a sense of wonder and awe at the pure visceral beauty of live theatre, and then I came home and struggled to come up with something coherent to write because I was simply bowled over with the energy of it all.  Really, I loved the show.  I just had to take some time to process what I saw—no, experienced.  It was raw, it was powerful, it was funny—it was just plain real.

This is the story of four lives disrupted by tragedy, and there is a real sense of grief and the weariness that it brings, from the beginning of the play.  As the action begins, dancer Anna (Ellie Schwetye) and her ad man housemate Larry (Jared Sanz Agero) are still reeling from the death of their friend and housemate Robbie, who was killed along with his boyfriend in a tragic boating accident.  Also on the scene is Anna’s boyfriend Burton (Reginald Pierre), a successful screenwriter, with whom Anna has a comfortable if somewhat emotionally distant relationship.  As these three try to pick up the pieces of their lives following Robbie’s funeral, Robbie’s volatile brother Pale (Adam Flores) enters the scene and disrupts their lives even more as he and Anna are inexorably drawn together.

This play is about many things. It’s about four different people affected by the life and death of a fifth.  It’s also about family, both biological and friendship-based, and the difficulty and rewards of relationships with other people. It’s also about secrets and denial, such as in Robbie’s family who refused to accept that he was gay and had never seen him dance.  There are also issues of art vs. commercialism exemplified in Burton’s screenplays, Anna’s dances, and Larry’s work in advertising (his story of the “inoffensive Christmas card” is hilarious and very believable). In addition, the play deals with safety vs. risk in relationships, and pursuing one’s own dreams vs. trying to meet the expectations of others, as well as the unpredictability of love as portrayed in the dynamic relationship between Anna and Pale. It’s a very well-constructed play with a strong, even musical sense of language, and there is an excellent sense of symmetry as well, especially in the parallels between Anna’s and Pale’s first scene together and the play’s final scene.

The performances are universally excellent, with a strong sense of chemistry among the ensemble and especially between Anna and Pale.  Schwetye gives a thoroughly convincing performance as the emotionally guarded Anna, and Flores is a revelation as the volatile, grief-stricken Pale.  There is so much palpable energy in Flores’s performance that it is evident even when he is standing still.  Agero also gives an affecting performance as Larry, who is at turns warm, funny, snarky and sad, as well as an effective sounding board and occasional foil for the other players.  As Burton, Pierre gives off a strong sense of entitlement and privilege, and is a stark contrast to the fiery Pale.  Their fight scene, well choreographed by Bob Mitchell, is an emotionally-charged and thoroughly believable moment.

This production is very visually interesting in terms of the set and the casting, with four very different physical types (Anna, long and lean; Larry, bigger and loosely moving; Burton, tall, athletic and somewhat stiff; Pale, small and wiry with loads of nervous energy) complementing each other perfectly. Thom Schwetye’s set, a simple depiction of an open and sparsely furnished Manhattan loft, makes a great canvas for the portrait that is painted of these people. The dances–a vital part of Anna’s life and a legacy of Robbie’s–are easily imagined even though they are not seen, and Robbie is a fully-drawn character even though he never appears onstage.  The original folk/rock/blues music by I Love You, I Know very appropriately sets the mood of the production as well.

I’ve been familiar with SATE for a few years, having seen several of their previous productions, and I’ve always been impressed with what I’ve seen.  I’ve enjoyed their unique approach to movement and expression that comes from their Viewpoints and Suzuki-based training methods, and this production is in that same vein, using the stage as a canvas to paint a picture with physical and emotional energy.  This show was about stillness and distance as much as it was about physicality and movement, and the result is spellbinding.

Anna (Ellie Schwetye) and Pale (Adam Flores). Photography by Jason Walz

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