Blackbird – The Dead of Night
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
I once saw a documentary about a man who had himself chemically castrated. The man was a pedophile, he hurt, abused (raped) dozens of children. To repent for his crimes, he had voluntarily removed his sex drive from his body. Weeping into the lens, he repeated, over and over, that he would cut his penis off too, if necessary. It was a grotesque display, difficult to watch, hard to digest. The man wasn’t smug, or arrogant, he was destroyed, and yet, to feel pity for him felt like negation. It felt like betrayal. Some transgressions are just too fucking big for I’m sorry, no matter the form it takes.
Such is the case with Blackbird, the challenging David Harrower piece currently playing at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Blackbird centers around the relationship between Ray (Steven Shriner) and Una (Ann Turiano). Ray is a pedophile and Una, his twelve-year-old victim. Now a haunted twenty-something, Una has come to confront Ray at his bland, banal office, to scare him up out of his hiding place and have some sort of reckoning. Ray left, you see, he melted away into the world after his short prison sentence, but Una had no such luck. As she says, she kept her name.
If Harrower would just let you have your big, satisfying, revenge scenario, this play would be absolutely delicious, it would feel so good and justified. But he doesn’t. Instead, he frustratingly keeps introducing all of these brutal possibilities. The possibilities suggest things that make us uncomfortable. They suggest pity for Ray. They suggest anger at Una. They make it all so messy. Every line, every gesture, every twitch could send us hurtling off into unknown continents, Squirmland. What if Una was in love? Can we even grant that chance? What if she is still? What if Ray does it again? What if he has (which is lightly suggested near the end)? What if what happened was so formative for her that to take it away cuts her strings completely, leaves her crumpled? All of these things are floating in front of you…but then, but then, you keep coming up against the fact that there is no gray area. You slam into it over and over and over again. She was twelve. She was a child. She was twelve. She was a child. The tension between the poles of sympathy and certainty leave you emotionally bloody by the end. So, uh, yes. Challenging in the way everything good is challenging. Don’t shy away.
The acting is superb, pretty fucking incredible considering Harrower’s beat-poetry-like dialogue. Turiano inhabits Una so deftly that it’s unnerving. She throws her body around, slides along a table, kicks trash out of her way, every bit the precocious twelve-year-old. At the same time, her shoulders rise, her stance stiffens, her eyes narrow. Una has no idea what she wants from him, really, and Turiano handles these whiplash motivations with incredible grace. She also looks straight down the barrel of the most disturbing implications (the way she says “Am I too old?” killed me, it absolutely killed me) without blinking. Shriner is a master of hesitation, he makes a study and an art of it. He’s perfect for this role because Ray is a man that, in his DNA, does not. know what. to say. He excuses himself, backpedals, accuses. Their chemistry is ridiculously complex and weird; there was a moment where my companion poked me because the balance they pull off is so exquisite, I had forgotten to breathe.
Director Anthony Hinkle insists, gently but pointedly, that his actors make choices at every moment, that they don’t spin on the options and, instead, lock in. This dedication to commitment makes the play titanium-level strong, specific, and functions to build the tension to an almost unbearable pitch. I only wish that it hadn’t started so early. From the moment that Una enters the breakroom, it’s so high that I felt like Hinkle limits where it can go from there. I would have liked a slower burn, a more controlled approach. Hinkle also designed the set, which pushes the concept of a mess just a hair further than is honestly believable (I mean, I’ve been in some gross common areas, this one has drifts), but is effective nonetheless.
BOTTOM LINE: Blackbird at Fells Point Corner Theater is absolutely, 100%, the most nuanced, difficult, powerful thing playing on any stage in Baltimore right now (and maybe, if we’re getting honest, for a long time). It’s the kind of production where you feel like you’re ripping them off paying only $20. It makes me want to crawl away by myself and turn it all over and over in my mind. That’s the power of incredible theater. That’s the lightning.
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