Mercy Killers @ Stella Adler Studio (Manhattan thru February 2)
Grounded @ Page 73 at Walkerspace (thru February 1)

There is intensity inherent in the one person show structure — especially when that show is not cabaret (though that framework can be emotionally devastating in the right hands with the right set list) or a musical celebration of a life. With no singing and dancing and nary a joke to be had, two one-person shows currently on New York stages tell stories, reveal histories, share emotions, berate us or entrance us toward exhaustion or devastation or a combination of both. Each show has differently chosen how to deal with the audience — do we have a role, if only for a moment, as witnesses or confessors or co-conspirators? Each show has differently dressed its performance space to differing effect. At the core for Mercy Killers (currently at the Stella Adler Studio in Chelsea) and Grounded (currently at Walkerspace in Soho) are the stories being told and each performer’s approach to the material. And in one a bellow berates us with a tale. In another, a persistent, focused delivery draws us in and cuts us in two, illuminating not only a woman’s life but a cultural point in time.

Mercy Killers: Police Procedural Bellow.

Michael Milligan.
Michael Milligan.

Police procedurals in every genre prepare us well for the initial choices made in this production — one person, an interrogator (here off stage, imagined, addressed by our one character), and a mystery. Why is our narrator in the slammer, or the interview room or the holding cell? Can we trust our narrator’s version of events? Will narration be presented as a back-and-forth with the unseen person off-stage, or shall that set up be put down (as it were) quickly to allow us to settle into the storytelling as it unfolds? Mercy Killers, written and performed by Michael Milligan, and directed by Tom Oppenheim, has a big social and economic story to tell through a smaller lives buffeted by larger social events. Yet — the political story never allows us to feel, the storytelling never surprises, the choices about the off-stage interrogator (who asks no questions) aren’t well thought through. And our protagonist allows us one note into his world. It wearies.

Our unnamed protagonist in “an interrogation room” in “the recent past” — according to our playbill — is blue jeaned and annoyed. He has been brought into a dark room that we the audience members are already arrayed around. In this story telling experience we as the audience are conventional observers to a story, and we’re to experience our angry dude as without lawyer (this lack of attention to Miranda rights is never explained) who spends an hour or so attempting to explain himself to a (non-voiced) off stage cop. We eventually piece together a story of a small-business owner’s life on the edge, a husband attempting to do for his family, a life that is thrown into disarray by a devastating violent act.

But bellowing feelings, silencing himself, then gradually revealing devastating details of life and death in a black box without a second character to ask our prisoner questions — gives us the audience and the actor himself nothing to play against. And this actor in this character in this performance gives us silence or bellow, zero or sixty, and little in between. Stories of the lower class and barely-hanging-on middle class and the devastation that can be wrought by medical malfeasance and insurance collusion need to be told in as many ways as social scientists and dramatists and journalists can think to tell them. This particular piece of theatre thematically gives us a glimpse of the devastated remains of a life buffeted by economic woes and medical insurance game playing. As a piece of theatre there are plot holes and dramatic lapses that take us out of the story. The substance is important; the theatre-making is wanting.

Grounded: Mesmerizing Horror Story.

Hannah Cabell. Image by Rob Strong.
Hannah Cabell. Image by Rob Strong.

In another Manhattan theatre space not far away, another one person story telling adventure provides a wildly differing dramatic experience. Grounded by playwright George Brant takes us through the story of a fighter pilot (Hannah Cabell) who loves her job, is “grounded” by a pregnancy then put back to work piloting a fighter drone from a U.S. western desert, then in essence grounds herself through her reactions to war-time decisions and orders involving targets in a country far away.

This character has layers and nuances and talks to us in the audience as if we are her confessors, her court-martial audience. In the end, through the rooted and devastatingly still and focused performance of Cabell as our flight jacketed star, we are taken through her stages of proud aviator then mom (to daughter Sam) and wife (to Eric) then her role as a sort of re-calibrated pilot in front of a grey fuzzy screen rather than soloing in the clear blue sky. In this staging directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, in the simplest of sets by Arnulfo Maldonado, lit by Garin Marschall, in a flight jacket also by set designer Maldonado — our protagonist tells us her tale simply and devastatingly. She is a believer in her military system, she initially feels demeaned by then embraces her transfer to flight-as-gameboy experience, and we go with her. We feel along with her the initial impressions of real life effects of what feel like arcade game activities — her joy stick manages a real drone with real strike capacity. She utilizes that capacity and feels nothing. Until she feels something. And the dramatic structure, the dramatic presentation, the eloquence of this character’s arc and this actresses monologues as well as her silences, makes for riveting and devastating theatre.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 28, 2014)

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