I’m not exactly sure what play I watched at Actors Theatre during this weekend’s 42nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, but it was certainly not the same one the majority of the audience for “Evocation to Visible Appearance” watched.
What I thought I saw was a chilling, bleak and disturbing portrayal of a young woman and her family and their dark perspectives on their futures. However, most of the audience found it to be a side-splitting comedy, busting into uproarious laughter throughout as though they were the live studio audience for a taping of “Will and Grace.”
This left me profoundly confused. Conversations with friends via social media after the play confirmed my feelings of disconnect. Part of me feels like I need to see the play again with a different audience to accurately gauge my reaction. But frankly, I don’t want to.
“Evocation” starts out as a black comedy — yes, there are definitely some laughs — following Samantha (Suzy Weller), a poor 17-year-old who may or may not be pregnant by her college-bound, “American Idol” wannabe boyfriend (Lincoln Clauss), her hopeless, unemployed father (Bruce McKenzie) and her institutionalized sister (Ronete Levenson).
Samantha has a “meet cute” with a black-metal rocker, Hudson (Luke F. LaMontange), at a bus stop after her boyfriend dumps her. Hudson is unfazed by her pregnancy and her cynicism. “Satan thinks you’re a bored little girl,” he tells her.
For a while, it’s almost sweet as they talk while sipping slushees at the edge of the trash pile that lines the front of the stage. Their bleak world views and sullenness complement each other, and LaMontagne is positively winning as Hudson, at first.
Then the two teens engage in a strange fit of passion, and suddenly the up-to-then fairly straight-forward plot unravels. A savage act of violence springs from out of nowhere. The play concludes with a black metal song (the theater provides earplugs if you want them) and a bizarre humiliation of the father. There’s no curtain call.
I was left with more questions than answers.
“Evocation” is very writerly and gets more so as the play progresses. The conversation is stilted, unnatural and even seasoned, and celebrated actors like McKenzie can’t make it feel any less so.
Samantha and her sister Natalie seem like they’ve sprung from the head of Lena Dunham — misunderstood, petulant, rude, tragic. Samantha tries to make everyone in the play “get real” with her, and it seems like we’re meant to admire this attribute, but she’s terrible (and dishonest, herself).
“Learn to suffer, Sam,” her sister tells her. As if she hasn’t already.
This play is Artistic Director Les Waters’ swan song at Actors Theatre. His pending departure is breaking a lot of hearts in the city, and I doubt this play will be a balm for many of them.
Actors commissioned “Evocation” from playwright Mark Schultz, who has a strong background in divinity with degrees from Yale and Berkeley Divinity Schools and a certificate from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Waters has a history of engaging with divine themes, but “Evocation” only skirted them.
The play made me deeply nostalgic for what I would consider Waters’ masterwork for Actors, “The Glory of the World” at Humana Festival in 2015, a celebration of the monk Thomas Merton. Like “Glory,” “Evocation” employed supertitles projected on the stage, giving snippets of dialogue to come.
“Glory” also featured McKenzie and similarly straddled the line between play and something like performance art. It also was commissioned by the theater.
But where “Glory” left me exhilarated and inspired (I think I saw it two or three times), “Evocation” made me angry and feeling bleak.
But sometimes theater is meant to disturb and unsettle. “Evocation” did that in spades. The roaring belly laughs of many in the audience are a testament to the absolute subjectivity of the enjoyment of this play.
Finding comedy in the dark nihilism of these self-professed “hollow” people just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Despite the play’s abstractness, it’s too real.
“Evocation to Visible Appearance” continues through April 8. Tickets start at $29.