Real experts like E. M. Forester and Virginia Woolf knew what reviewers go out of their way explaining in wordy detail: there is no such thing as a simple plot. Like offline real life, a scripted tale’s truths and lies depend on the teller. Playwright and director Isaac Byrne takes four familiar plotlines and tweaks them anew in Under the Dragon’s Tail, four short plays performed by superbly talented members of Theatre 4the People (t4tp) at Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre.
Snakes are modern-day descendants of dragons. Ophiology is the scientific study of snakes and an appropriate title for the first play on the program. They’re crawling all over the woodsy area Ace (Aubrey Clyburn) and Reggie (Melissa Mattos) are hiding in after the former killed a cop and seriously injured their friend Jacky (Danielle Grisko), left for dead. Ace speaks in a clipped monotone at length about astronomy and snakes but not so much about the situation they’re in or her love for Reggie. Like film noir, this night will end more badly than it began. It’s the what happens in between: Ace is anything but one, Reggie is more interesting than the atypical accomplice and Jacky is more of presence than either think. All three actors are given wonderful monologues. So strong is their connection that it’s not hard creating a first or second act for them before this final one.
Drakones were the flying serpents who drove Medea’s chariot. Neither sorceress nor drakones appear in The Golden Fleece, but the creatures’ offstage hissing keeps Jason (Conor M. Hamill) honest. He tells his side of his very public private life as stand-up act/barroom testimonial. Visual metaphors – the Golden Fleece is a ratty bathmat and the Argo is a painted wreck – are powerful realities in this retelling. Hamill’s Jason has obviously reviewed his life story is various states of sobriety. He may have even previously revealed the truth but still surprises himself and the audience hearing it for the first time. Without giving anything away, this interpretation will satisfy fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Firebrand.
Snakes are unseen but no less important in the penultimate and last plays.
Letters to a Young Cosmonaut is delivered beautifully by Haley Rice. This flight recording is no Star City or Smithsonian archive. Rather, the Cosmonaut is reliving and working out her on- and off-world lives. Rice’s shifts between memory and reality are believable; those on the home planet are no different with their feelings. Though it may be a spaceship, the plastic coils holding it together are shaped like snakes.
One, Two, Three is the beginning of uncoiling the past. Ash (Evan Simone Frazier) is getting over breaking up with Wednesday (Kat Donachie). Unlike the previous plays, this one makes no distinction between fantasy and reality – experiencing serious loss is no different. The books and reams of paper the two fling at each other are going to be picked up. Ash doesn’t have the answers for herself or the audience, which isn’t a bad thing.
Running Time: Two hours with one 10-minute intermission
Under the Dragon’s Tail opened on July 24, 2022 at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theater (357 West 36th Street, NYC) and run the weekends of August 5-7 and August 12-14. For further information, please visit the company’s website. Tickets can be purchased here. Masking is required inside the theatre at all times.