BWW Review: Bridge Rep Ties Up First Season With GIDION'S KNOT
Written by Johnna Adams, Directed by Karen MacDonald; Esme Allen, Scenic Design; Charles Schoonmaker, Costume Design; Katy Atwell, Lighting Design; David Remedios, Sound Design; John Tracey, Properties Master; Skylar Burks, Production Stage Manager; Angie Jepson, Fight Choreographer
CAST: Olivia D'Ambrosio, Deb Martin
Performances through June 22 at Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com, www.bridgerepofboston.com
Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston concludes its acclaimed first season with Gidion's Knot, a two-hander whose story could have been ripped from the headlines, yet is anything but boilerplate. Using the vehicle of a parent-teacher conference, playwright Johnna Adams plots an unusual path through the aftermath of a traumatic event, challenging the audience to choose sides or apportion their sympathies between the participants in this contentious meeting. Set in a fifth-grade classroom, school issues du jour comprise the storyline's Gordian knot which may or may not be resolved by the end of the play.
It is difficult to say much about Gidion's Knot without revealing important elements, but suffice to say that the experience was not what I expected. The generic synopsis states that Gidion's mother and teacher share a highly-charged exchange about the boy's suspension from school, and that details of his behavior raise questions about timely and timeless themes. While that is accurate insofar as it goes, it certainly did not prepare the opening night audience for the emotional extremes required of the two fine actresses who go toe to toe for a taut eighty minutes. Bridge Rep's producing artistic director Olivia D'Ambrosio (Heather Clark) and Deb Martin (Corryn Fell) perambulate the stage in carefully choreographed movements, eyeing each other warily as they repeatedly establish and invade boundaries of personal and psychological space. Director Karen MacDonald masterfully weaves all the threads together, knowing when to leave some slack and when to yank hard to increase the tension.
The play opens with Heather alone in her classroom, appearing agitated while constantly checking the display on her cell phone. The generic sounds of children's voices and lockers slamming in the hallway fade in advance of a knock on the door. Corryn storms in like a woman on a mission, insisting that she has an appointment with the teacher who seems totally surprised and unprepared. D'Ambrosio's character's fragility is accentuated by Martin's height advantage and her assertive stride when she sweeps into the room, but Heather is a moving target and manages to dodge most of Corryn's verbal volleys. The teacher's hastily-conceived plan is to wait for the principal to join them before discussing the details of Gidion's infraction, or to convince the mother that it would be better for her to reschedule.
As the power and control shifts back and forth between them like children riding a seesaw, the two women gradually chip away at each other's defenses and share some moments of devastating honesty. In spite of this, they don't really know each other and ratchet up the discord and apprehension by making judgments based on false assumptions. Sitting in the audience, one feels a sense of impending doom as time slips away with no resolution in sight. What begins as a simple quest for closure evolves into an analysis of childhood development and a diatribe against the limits traditional education places on freedom of expression. The playwright creates a level playing field by equipping both of her characters with keen intellect and verbal acuity, but defines them by the nature of their individual emotional burdens.
D'Ambrosio and Martin are up to the numerous challenges in Adams' script which includes a healthy dose of non-verbal communication. Bridge Rep's performance space in Deane Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion is about the size of a classroom (authentically replicated by Esme Allen's scenic design) and the seating arrangement affords the audience an up-close-and-personal perspective from which to observe the actors' rich variety of expressions. Every time a jaw is clenched in anger, eyes widen in alarm, or tears quietly roll down a cheek, the emotional waves wash over us like an incoming tide. Like tennis players on opposite sides of the net, they take turns unleashing a forceful blow or quietly awaiting the opportunity to defend the shot. Martin's rendering is full of strong, straight-forward attack, and D'Ambrosio's character responds by retreating and creating distance in their showdown, but each has moments when they reveal another aspect of their personality.
The action begins haltingly in Gidion's Knot, but it takes off like a runaway train once it gathers steam. There are a couple of twists in the denouement of the narrative that seem gratuitous, but the actors never waver in their commitment to the material. That is merely one benchmark of Bridge Rep's productions which conveys the impression that the fledgling company has been around for four or five seasons, rather than just completing its first. They challenge themselves and their audiences to live up to their mission statement: Live theatre is not an end unto itself, but rather a means of connection. A team of accomplished artistic associates, combined with talented designers who bring the world of the plays to the stage (Costume Designer Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Designer Katy Atwell, Sound Designer David Remedios), and thoughtful, eclectic choices of material have quickly and deservedly put Bridge Rep's name on the Boston theater map in bold letters.
Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin (Olivia D'Ambrosio, Deb Martin)