The Woolfe Street Playhouse is an intimate space. The huge wooden doors to the lobby creak closed, the room fades to blackness, and the (real) candles flickering on each table are lily pads of light leading to the stage. Actors stand on a stage just feet from the closest audience members. Last night, before the play started, The Village Repertory Co.’s artistic director Keely Enright took the stage, arms wrapped tight to her chest. “I’m nervous,” she laughed.
The Transcendents, commissioned by Village Rep from acclaimed NYC playwright Derek Ahonen, is brand spankin’ new. Enright stood before a fairly small audience (including Ahonen) to introduce the play’s opening night. After a few minutes she smiled, shrugged, and scurried stage right. The audience took in a collective breath — what were we about to see?
What we saw was nothing for Enright to be nervous about. If anything, the captivating, disturbing, and surprisingly uplifting play disappointed only in its turnout. A play like this deserves a packed house.
The Transcendents is, as Ahonen noted in Elizabeth Pandolfi’s preview of the show, heavily plot-driven. This is the universal hook; people can’t turn away when they really want to know what happens next. Then there are the characters — strange and mysterious enough to keep you wondering why they’re so messed up.
The play opens with Roger (Michael David Wilson), a tall, lanky, chiseled ghost of a man — think Robert Pattinson’s Twilight days — who leaves a small farm in New Mexico for the streets of Los Angeles. The answers to why he was on the farm and why he has a connection to Los Angeles become clear slowly, and they’re important to the story. But more fascinating than any plot twist is Roger’s demeanor. He changes throughout the play from a brooding guy with a gun (suicidal? homicidal? We aren’t quite sure), to an introspective man helping a friend he dearly loves. Oh yeah — and in between he kills a bunch of animals.
Los Angeles is the home of the Transcendents, a musical duo who made it big a decade ago when they released ten albums in one year. The play jumps back and forth in time, introducing Kim (Sierra Garland) and Foster (Patrick Arnheim) as they create their band, enlisting the help of a wacky songwriter. A love triangle ensues in the past as a sexually-induced business connection is made in the present.
Roger gets to L.A., kidnaps a baby — in a precious and precarious move the cast uses a real live crying baby — and ends up in the bar where the Transcendents first played, Jan’s Basement. Jan (Keely Enright) is an obnoxious 40-something who drinks too much and beds Roger within minutes of meeting him. The baby disappears from the play, leaving the audience either peeved at the hanging thread of that storyline, or intrigued by the possibility of what could have happened to it. Nothing good, we assume.
Roger and Jan become a strange team as they navigate the seedy streets of L.A. looking for Kim and Foster. Jan has a deaf paraplegic sister, Cecilia (Keanu Thompson), who is perhaps one of the play’s few flaws. The character is supposed to serve a purpose, but she feels like an afterthought.
The play runs approximately two hours, which would be too long if the monologues weren’t so good. Is that a thing, to have a string of really great monologues? Because The Transcendents nails it. Characters can develop in any number of ways but Ahonen took the soul-exposing route. Foster is an asshole, but we understand why. Kim is damaged goods, but we feel for her. Roger is a ticking time bomb, but we need that. Jan is sad, but at least she’s got all that vodka.
Of the characters, Kim develops the most — we won’t say how, except to say it’s a regressive development that peels away layers of her dark past, paralleling her tragedies with the tragedies of those around her. How do these people keep moving when their lives are so sad?
The Village Rep brings to life a play that could have turned out very differently. The actors were not actors, but the very people they claimed to be. They bled into their roles and transcended the static characters they could have become. The play is running for five more nights. Go see it.
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