Skeleton Hearts: Three Short Plays
By Lola Pierson, Sam Shepard, and Samuel Beckett
Through Oct. 11 at Acme Corporation
Theater is an art whose true media are time and space. When we awarded "Best Production" to Acme Corporation for their 12- and 24-hour versions of Samuel Beckett's Play, we were, in some respects, recognizing the way that Lola Pierson and Stephen Nunns, the directors, made use of the passage of time, turning it into art. Skeleton Hearts, Acme's new collection of three short plays, by contrast, explores space by turning St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, which houses the theater, into the medium and the subject of the plays.
In a collection like this, it is the space between the plays that matters and causes them to succeed or to fail, as if each is one note in a chord. Here, the architecture of the building provides that space between the dominant and the tonic, in which the sound dwells.
Lola Pierson, this year's "Best New Playwright," made superb use of the old church in last year's Office Ladies, and though her one-act Heart Happens utilizes a more conventional approach to set design, it governs the evening and must have been the piece around which the company gathered Samuel Beckett's Rockaby and Sam Shepard's Killer's Head. It was a wise choice, because each of the plays complements the others, bringing a kind of completion that is often lacking in shorter fare.
Alone, Heart Happens is not an entirely successful play. It begins with brilliant moments of awkward gallows humor as Horse (Naomi Kline), Planter (Cricket Arrison), and Beast (Geoff Graham) rise and fall, sometimes speaking and sometimes only almost speaking, before sitting back down. Soon, Horse finds a book in her shirt, and a series of numbered aphorisms on love and hearts provides structure to the rest of the play. "Number 1: A missing heart is worth two in the bush," Planter intones with a flat deadpan.
"Oh good! I was worried," Horse says, sort of overheating in her awesomely ridiculous pink-and-black pantsuit.
By the midpoint in the play, however, the gallows humor has been replaced by a real-if absurdist-sense of pathos as Arrison's Planter obsesses over a non-determined fatal illness (which appears simply to be the human condition) and helps the goofy-cum-sinister Beast cut out Horse's heart and replace it with a new one.
It may sound a little too much like warmed-over Ionesco, and the explorations of heart as metaphor and heart as physical organ might be a little over-obvious, especially on the page, but the actors bring the whole thing to rather-spectacular life. Kline brings the perfect wide-eyed intensity to her role, and Arrison is electrically apathetic. Her eyes alone carry a devastating range of emotions, and when she first starts glancing over at the hypermasculine Beast, everything that follows is contained in the angle of her neck and her line of sight. While her character has the potential to be nothing but tedious, Arrison is nothing short of brilliant in her disaffection.
It is difficult to write about some of Acme's performances without giving something away, so consider this a "spoiler alert," though one having nothing to do with plot and everything to do with embodied motion. After Heart, Nunns divides the audience into two groups, each of which is led into a different, though equally spooky, parts of the upper-levels of the church.
For Sam Shepard's Killer's Head, the audience moves into a small, cell-like room with stone walls and a ceiling that rains bits of dirt as if to punctuate the fiercely equestrian monologue of what seems to be a speed-addled cowboy (Shepard's complete work could perhaps be called "Speed-Addled Cowboys"). Chris Ashworth is spectacular in the role. Since it is a monologue and contains very little movement, there is only the matter of believing him. The constrained space conspires with the sweat dripping from his bald head to make one feel as if what initially seemed like it would be a friendly conversation were about to go very, very wrong. Ashworth is genuinely scary as he enthuses about his various horses, and it is not only the ratcheted-up quality of his voice but the tense physicality he brings to sitting in a chair that make his performance so convincing and, almost literarily, riveting.
Beckett's Rockaby also consists of a single character in a chair, but it plumbs the opposite end of the spectrum of agitation as the brilliantly still Temple Crocker rocks back and forth, only occasionally speaking. There is, however, a "silent" (i.e. pre-recorded) monologue running back and forth through her mind, propelling the slow rhythm of her chair. Beckett was James Joyce's secretary when Joyce was working on Finnegan's Wake and this internal monologue represents the playwright at his most Joycean, resembling the Anna Livia Plurabelle or Molly Bloom passages in Joyce. The use of a recorded voice perfectly captures the way we can get lost in our own thought-circles.
All three plays are defined by an intense physicality that makes them as much the body as about space. But neither Shepard's nor Beckett's plays would seem so corporeal if not for the meditative prologue of Pierson's play. The real "play" here is, in many senses, the ricocheting of meaning back and forth between these plays long after the actors have left the stage. Or the little stone cell, as the case may be.