Friday, August 12, 2011

Avenging Angels

Entries in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival rarely burn with poetic intensity. Produced by Theatrical Mining Company and playing at Notre Dame College's Copeland Theater, Abraham and Isaac does. That is its strength but in its more static patches also its weakness.

Written by Stephen Schulze, this drama features a Columbine-like mass shooting at a school. The father of one of the victims, Charlie Barrow (Howard Berkowitz) tracks down one of the assailants, Ethan Brody (Daniel Sakamoto-Wengel). A military veteran and experienced hunter, Barrow's long monologues recount the killing of his daughter Vicki (Annie Unger) and the ensuing hunt. Richly metaphorical, the narratives evoke the shock of the bereaved father and the author's carefully observed love of nature. The grief of Charlie's estranged wife Anne (Raina Dewald) and the shame of Ethan's parents (masterfully played by Paul Ballard and Anne Marie Feild) enhance the pathos of the piece. A clever memorial service, in which the entire audience becomes the congregation of the bereaved, deepens the emotional pitch of the work by rooting it in the biblical suffering of Job and Christ crucified. (Tiffani Bliss Brown's delivery of the stirring sermon, however, is oddly muted.) Ably assisted by choreographer Nancy Flores, director Barry Feinstein's use of mime to evoke the violence and anguish of the characters underscores the play's poetic air.

At times, however, the poetic reminiscences freeze the work's action. The long narratives of the past become cumbersome; the too frequent strolls through nature exude a faded romantic perfume. The second act is overwhelmed by long patches of philosophical speculation. The vaguely Nietzschean theorizing by Charlie, Ethan, and Sheriff Watt (Steve Lichtenstein) on the enigma of evil rarely rises above cliche.

An emerging playwright---this is his first produced play---Schulze powerfully evokes the nihilism, grief, and bewilderment at the heart of our violence-soaked society. Abraham and Isaac is well worth the visit to Notre Dame. But the author has not quite made the transition from the poetic monologue and the philosophical treatise to the act-centered (rather than word or concept centered) world of drama.

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