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“Old Names for Wildflowers” at The Tank

Old Names for Wildflowers featuring Karen Eilbacher and Jackie Abbott Photo by Corbin Went

It’s a monumental work. A colossal saga that astutely comments on 21st Century patriarchy through the lens of post Civil war societal fall out in 1865. It’s a vivisection of a family gone “nuclear” as a result of unspoken desires. It has a filmic quality to it that comes to us in episodes that fade in and out of our current reality –almost like a memory from a past life. Like the smell of jasmine through an open window that transports you to a long forgotten moment. Like a family tree lineage search that yields a discrepancy, a secret, an unexplained gap, a broken branch.

Playwright Corbin Went seems to be exploring feminine archetypes and their response to the wild, the untamed, the oppressive. The mother, femme fatale, witch, spinster, adulterer, healer, seductress, nurturer, the martyr, the survivor all find expression through the five expertly drawn female characters. Went places the women, a mother and her four daughters, in a “hostile” environment of poverty after their father dies in the war. Their survival has been linked to the “kindness” of the local priest and his two sons. Meanwhile a wily fox in the vicinity portends danger. This noble messenger foreshadows an imminent demise and heralds dark sorcery.

This fragile subsistence starts to fray as the human fallibility of the role players is dramatically exposed as expectations are unmet, a teenage pregnancy surfaces and incest is revealed. As the sinning priest hurls accusations of witchcraft at the Aubert’s female stronghold, a retribution seeker is lurking in their midst hell-bent on a reckoning. Two sisters will be left to salvage a future from the wreckage of bigotry and violence perpetrated by those locked in the rigidity of organized, patriarchal religion. The “devil” peddles his wares on the edge of their property but they pay him no mind. They denounce the notion of original sin and rebuild their place in the world by renouncing everything. It makes one think of Scarlett O’Hara saying, “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again”. There is a feisty feminism in it. The play is a powerful statement on survival and the qualities of those individuals who are able to overcome extreme odds to triumphantly stand in their light.

Director Emma Rosa Went stokes the fires in the bellies of the characters to set the old paradigms aflame. She lets no moment go unexplored. She erupts the thick emotional lava flowing between the characters to purge them of their wrongdoings. There is clear evidence of intensive character exploration and she slows down time to let the weight of the moment sit heavily on us. Her work is marvelously detailed and completely absorbing.

There are ten potent performers in the cast bringing this story to life. Alexandra Gonzalez as Elizabeth, the mother, gives a solid performance as the woman trying to grapple with lost love and unrequited pining. She perfectly epitomizes a cold hardy rose managing to bloom even in the harshest conditions. Tom Giodano as the priest Alexis was excellent in his portrayal of the guilty sinner projecting his shame onto others with all of the fire and brimstone he could muster. Montana Lampert Hoover as the youngest daughter, Angele, was magnetic as the spoilt teenager looking for male affirmation and a way to escape the confines of living in isolation. Patrick Harvey as Maurice, the rogue, gave a truly exquisite performance. His journey from romantic lover to despicable mudslinger was utterly captivating.

One of my favorite performances was by Zoe Goslin as the “spinster/herbalist Melandre. Her emotionally complex portrayal of a woman on the verge of exploding was spellbinding. She has a massive presence on stage that is fantastic to watch. Karen Eilbacher as the disfigured sister, Couer, was the anchor of the piece. She tethered the flighty emotions to the earth exuding an energy of control and wisdom. Jackie Abbott as Zoe, the chthonic enchantress, was exceptional. She gave us a fiery “new” woman rising strong from the ashes fierce in her love and a mighty force in the face of blunt patriarchy.

In the supporting roles Patrick McCann, as the “good brother”, was charming and heartfelt. Finn Kilgore as the bookseller has an amazing presence and you wanted to have seen more of him. Monica Lerch, as the fox, managed to give us a subtle physicality so it did not seem like a pantomime element – we simply believed her to be a cunning forest animal.

Dan Daly’s scenic design is clever and quite beautiful. The hessian, wood and calico allow for a great sense of the rustic and provides opportunities for shadow work.  Corbin Went has also crafted the stunning sound design and you feel it as a deliciously jarring underscore revealing the desolate emotional landscape of the character’s inner worlds. Lighting designer, Chris D’Angelo vividly paints the mood of the situation, environment and time. We feel the hot day, the bleak outlook, the dark, haunting night. Sara Fellini’s costume design gives symbolic colors and designs to the characters that echo their emotionality and personality. It is like they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

This world premiere, epic tale, is being presented by The Tank (Meghan Finn and Rosalind Grush, Artistic Directors), The Renovationists, and Parity Productions. It feels like you are watching an old classic, like Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, but it has distinctive 21st Century sensibilities. It is both old fashioned and totally contemporary. I would have like to have seen the roles of Alexis and Elizabeth played by older actors just to explore that reality. I would also like to see a lot less blackouts. But it’s a remarkable, mature work for so young a playwright.

 

Running time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.

Old Names for Wildflowers runs May 11 – 25, at The Tank (312 West 36th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues) For more information and tickets visit www.thetanknyc.org/theater/1012-old-names-for-wildflowers/

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