Single Carrot tackles paranoia
Mike Zemarel and Alix Fenhagen play a couple whose marriage of convenience gets inconvenient. (Britt Olsen-Ecker / June 25, 2014)
By Georgi Gospodinov
Directed by Genevieve de Mahy
Through June 29 at Single Carrot Theatre
Back in 2002, when the so-called "Beltway snipers" were terrorizing the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the area was swept up in a horrible paranoia that recalled Sarajevo a decade prior, when snipers paralyzed that great city. In P.G. County, where I lived at the time, you could see people walking serpentine to their cars every time a white van drove by. And, of course, you immediately realized how many white vans there were on the roads—until the white van turned out to be a red herring and you learned John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were actually shooting out of a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice.
It was difficult not to think of that period—and those horrible reports out of Sarajevo—while watching Georgi Gospodinov's The Apocalypse Comes at 6 P.M. at Single Carrot Theatre, both because of the psychological similarities and the differences. The play—which follows a group of people who are somehow controlled by "The Accordionist" (Paul Diem)—is suffused with paranoia, recrimination, and unease. Part of this is the result of a sniper, or multiple snipers, who are terrorizing several European cities. All of our characters—who receive no names in the playbill—are, in some way, suspects. Any of them, even the child, could be the sniper. But some are more suspect than others. There is the couple who got married so they could share a dorm in college, thinking they would be fine if it didn't work out, they would just move on. The Accordionist, who acts as narrator and puppet master, tells us that it didn't work out. But instead of moving on, they had a child, whom the father (Mike Zemarel) eventually kidnaps. He takes her from Germany, where the couple had moved, back to Bulgaria, which they left because of economic and social conditions.
The mother (Alix Fenhagen), a scholar of Plato, refuses to return to Bulgaria. As she and her estranged spouse argue over Skype, they both brilliantly portray the frustrations that connect individuals with the larger world. Their careers, countries, economic situations, erotic desires, and child they created both connect and separate them, while that daughter (Isa Guitian) is evidently and obviously damaged by all the recriminations. Things build up and we wonder first if the father and then the mother might be the sniper.
But, perhaps it is another character (Jack Sossman), who, we know, has already killed a woman and cuts off the fingers of another man (Séamus Miller). Or maybe it is Miller's character, who is not above robbing someone on the street with a toy gun. Or even his grandfather (Larry Levinson), who spends his evenings happily arguing with his wife (Lois Sanders).
The role of the Accordionist, who spends much of the play above the other characters, on rafters atop the beautiful set—designed by Lisi Stoessel in what is perhaps the best use so far of Single Carrot's new space—is itself ambiguous and makes all of the other characters more ambiguous. He begins with a story about murdering an accordion that his dad gave him as a child. There is a sense, one gets, in which this character is God, who creates a shiny new world, only to have it break (there is a great speech about the loneliness before the first day of creation, and the entire play seems like an attempt to explore that loneliness).
This theological element becomes central to the play, as a grandmother waits, in a country where religion was illegal, for the apocalypse to come. It does come, as it comes for each of us, privately: The apocalypse is always personal but the personal is always political. With each of us, a world ends. But, in Gospodinov's play, this sentiment has a distinctly Central European feel (Gospodinov is Bulgarian) that is suffused with gallows humor and melancholy largely unknown to Americans (though, we come closest in Flannery O'Connor). The play often shimmers with the tension between these two emotions—and even hits, especially in Sossman's performance, notes of rage—but there is also a certain slackness to the structure, which could lag. One wishes that some wise editor had been there to rein in the playwright and make the script a bit more taut and suspenseful. As it was, one could be left waiting, like an old apocalyptic, for the end. Diem's Accordionist does manage to hold the divergent plots together in much the same way Diem seems to be holding together Single Carrot's casts, having starred in most of the productions this season (in part, one suspects, because the talented Nathan Cooper moved to . . . Bulgaria). It's not that Diem does not play the Accordionist with appropriate swagger, sorrow, and gusto, however. It's that the play might actually cohere better without this overarching figure in the same way that when one eliminates the figure of God from theology, a lot of things make a lot more sense.