Sarah Kane once wrote “theater has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts…I keep coming back to the theater in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind.” So it was that I came to Inis Nua Theatre Company’s American premiere of Stef Smith’s SWALLOW at the Proscenium Theater at the Drake, so I could switch my phone—my tether to responsibility—the fuck off for 90 minutes in the hope that someone in the darkened room would show me an image that burns itself into my mind, so I could write about it here, for you.
Lights up on vacant gray set framed with looming shards of glass suggesting the smashed ceiling of convention. We meet Anna (the impeccable Corinna Burns), a delightfully defiant woman in her early 40s perched on a platform above us looking/ speaking directly to the audience.
Like a determined bird Anna has removed herself from the world and is building a nest for herself. She has not left her flat in two years because she missed a bus. This may seem like a minor mistake, but maybe Anna had a micromanaging clock-watcher of a boss who would make her day hell if she was a minute late. Perhaps her boss would’ve docked her pay, which would cause Anna to lose money which could lead to her losing her apartment? Perhaps not. Perhaps Anna simply got tired of missing the bus, of all the opportunities which she let slip through her fingers. One day she had enough, so now she’s perched alone in her apartment.
After Anna we meet Rebecca (the straightforward, Felicia Leicht), a woman desperate to mend her broken marriage. Next we meet, Sam, in the process of bravely reconstructing her/his/ their gender. Smith’s script is as fluid and gorgeous and delicate as Sam’s identity.
In an interview for The List in July 2015, before SWALLOW debuted at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, Smith acknowledged the influence earth-shattering playwrights like Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill had upon her work. But you don’t need a quote from Smith in a 2015 interview to spot the influence of Kane and Churchill. You just have to come to the Drake and sit still for an hour and you’ll see it: Smith carries on the torch of Churchill and Kane gallantly.
In the foreword she writes, “The first draft just poured out onto the page. It was a play of absolute anger and anxiety that the world wasn’t the place I felt it could be.” Smith omits all stage directions; her characters cannot hide behind stage business or cling to props.
Director Claire Moyer delivers SWALLOW to the stage the way the playwright delivered it to the page. As in old school Shakespeare, all the actors have to hang on to are the words that spill out of there mouths. (Unlike Shakespeare, Smith has peopled SWALLOW with a cast of women and rarely seen transgender actors. Yay!) We are left with a cacophony of panic, the sweat on the back of the actors necks as they talk, the sounds of an anxiety attack, a ringing in the ears, the sound of blood flooding the ears (courtesy of sound designers Rowan Darko and John Kolbnski). Words spoken by the three actors overlap and breath together.
SWALLOW is a visceral, exquisitely written, three-person protest/anxiety attack. Perhaps the anxiety attack signifies change. I can not think of a better time than right fucking now to mount this play, given that America is in the middle of it’s own anxiety attack, right? North Korea, what?
I refused to analyze this play to death. This is not a play you can or should nail down in review. It’s transcends all attempts at description. So enough of this. Go see it.
[Proscenium Theater at the Drake, ] April 26-May 14, 2016; http://inisnuatheatre.org/swallow/