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Remnant
by Ron Reed
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
December 9, 2017

Michelle Hand, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Marissa Grice
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

The latest production from Mustard Seed Theatre is a revival of the very first play they presented, in 2007. I didn’t get to see that production of Ron Reed’s Remnant, but I’m glad I got to see this one. It’s a Christmas show, of sorts, but not like one you may expect.

The premise here as the audience takes their seats is that the action takes place in the same theatre space, 75 years in the future. There was apparently a worldwide plague, and a majority of the population was killed, leaving a few survivors to build a new civilization in the world that remains. It’s St. Louis, but different, and the society that remains is rougher, with varying groups struggling to make a life, and some strive to preserve what is left of the past. One family, led by the resourceful and protective Barlow Sho’r (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and his wife, Delmar Nu1 (Marissa Grice), who are preparing a celebration with their family of a holiday they are still learning about, the “Christ Mass”. They’re sharing this celebration with Barlow’s sister, the curious and somewhat mystical Annagail Bookr (Katy Keating), and an older, well-traveled cousin, Kristn Taler (Michelle Hand), who has also invited another guest to the party–a mysterious figure known as a Loner (Adam Flores). Barlow isn’t happy, but Kristn and Annagail are insistent. As the evening unfolds, we learn more about this new, post-apocalyptic world and the new society, language and customs of the survivors, and the family learns more about this legendary “Christ Mass”, trying to figure out the true meaning of the occasion.

This is a fascinating concept, and playwright Ron Reed has created a compelling world here, along with a modified language–English, but different in syntax and adding elements of Elizabethan English as well–to form something new, which is jarring at first, but becomes easier to understand as the play goes on. The situation does seem somewhat implausible to a degree, in that it seems to me that, plague or no plague, the society depicted here would take more than 75 years to develop. Still, the characters are interesting and believable, with descriptive names–Barlow Sho’r (pronounced’ “show-er”), preserves visual and auditory elements of the past, such as various electronics, record albums, and cobbled together clips of film. Kristn Taler is the storyteller, presenting meaningful tales of how the world, and this family, got into their present situation. There’s also Annagail Bookr, the archivist and visionary, who discovers the world of the “old ones” in books, and teaches her family members to read as well. It’s a harsh world, where there’s much suspicion and dangerous figures called “Bikers” who are never seen but often talked about, and feared. There are also wandering “loners”, and the presence of one such Loner helps provide this play’s message, as this family seeks to find the true meaning of Christmas. This is a Christian story, essentially, focusing on the origins of the holiday in the Bible, but there are also struggles to separate the religious and secular meanings, as the family members often find themselves confused by the relics they find, and the Loner’s presence is seen as a threat by the suspicious Barlow, but as a blessing by others.

The excellent cast is led by Lawson-Maeske in a convincing performance as suspicious, sometimes overprotective, but also mostly well-meaning Barlow, who has good chemistry with the amiable Grice as his curious wife Delmar. There are also standout performances by Keating, truly wondrous as the wide-eyed, curious learner Annagail, and by Hand as the wise, determined Kristn. Flores is also strong in a riveting performance as the increasingly curious Loner, who wants to learn but is constantly challenged by Barlow. There’s a believable family dynamic here, and the grasp of Reed’s unique language form is convincing, as well, flowing as if it’s a natural way of speaking.

The production values here are simply stunning, with Kristin Cassidy’s expansive, multi-level set encompassing the entire performance space. There are ladders and landings, and a hatch-like door that opens, and a central stage area strewn with a vast collection of relics, from books to electronics, to various types of furniture and other items from the days before the plague. The costumes, by Jane Sullivan and Lindzey Jent, also help to maintain the atmosphere of this imagined world, as the characters dress in various ways that seems scavenged, assembled from various discarded elements of clothing of various styles and eras. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, sound designer Zoe Sullivan, and props master Meg Brinkley, as the various technical elements work together to help establish and maintain the sense of time and place.

This is an ambitious play, with a message about the true meaning of Christmas as well as giving an idea of how the elements of culture can be preserved and transformed after a great calamity, as well as being transformative themselves. The story is engaging, the cast top-notch, and the production poignant, with a mostly dramatic tone tempered by elements of humor, and an underlying tone of hope. It’s a different Christmas story, but a fascinating one and, for the most part, it works.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Katy Keating, Marissa Grice
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Remnant at Fontbonne University until December 23, 2017

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