By Marilyn Lester
Surely the ghosts of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco were hovering over the three playwright-performers of the highly existential play, leaves. But unlike these European absurdists, the all-female collective, billed as Don, Pat and Tom, turn around the view that a bewildered humankind struggles with feelings of doom and hopelessness. Au contraire… leaves is fueled by the thinking of American poet Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass and other works inspired the play. To anchor their work, the creators of leaves cite and recite Whitman’s lines “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death and if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.” This philosophical seed thus launches the trio into a questing and examination of personal and universal myth.
Don, Pat and Tom are Alex Highsmith, Amanda Lea Mason, and Eryn Siobhan O’Sullivan, who have ironically named their female-stories driven collective after their fathers. Highsmith as Mot and Walt, and Mason as Rue, are the cloistered sisters and daughters of an ailing mother who happens to be a giant chrysanthemum. Disturbing this insular existence is the traveler Niamh, played by O’Sullivan, who also doubles as Gardener. Niamh (an Irish name meaning radiance and brightness, derived from the mythic Niamh, the daughter of the sea-god, Mananan) convinces the sisters to venture out into the world. Motivated by finding a cure for their dying mother, they reluctantly consent. Thus the quest is born. The action is played out against a plain set of three hanging sheets, upon which projections, shadow play and puppetry become mystical elements to move the story along. The creative team of Kate Bancroft and Naomi Lindh handle these “magical” features deftly, especially given the basic technology they have to work with.
Framed by a musical, philosophical prologue and epilogue, the journey of the three women seeks to tackle the heady concepts of responsibility, relationships, grief, change and “outside time” where there is no death––just leaving. leaves is an ambitious undertaking, but despite earnest performances and the tight chemistry of the writer-performers, leaves doesn’t hold together. The journey of the protagonists is a disjointed one, lacking the meaningful connective tissue that should serve to hold together the playwrights’ important concepts, observations and assertions. Director Elizabeth May keeps the pacing swift and has successfully moved the actors smartly through the rudimentary set with their various exits and entrances. Choreographed movement adds to the sense of drama and highlights the mythic elements of the plot. The stylized approach harkens to classic Greek theater, which, of course, was all about mythos and archetype.
This inaugural production of leaves next moves to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Greenside Studios. It’s part of 59E59 Theaters’ East to Edinburgh series, a showcase of 13 New York shows headed to Scotland for the largest arts festival in the world.
leaves plays at 59E59 Theatres again on July 11 and 12, giving the production principals further opportunity to fine tune their effort before heading overseas.