'Tranced ' is Spellbinding
By Bob Clyman
Directed by Kyle Fabel, Scenic Designer Campbell Baird, Costume Designer Deborah Newhall, Lighting Designer Brian Lilienthal, Composer Shane Rettig, Dialect Coach Julie Nelson, Stage Manager Emily F. McMullen, Assistant Stage Manager Peter Crewe
Performances through March 8 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Box Office 978-654-4MRT (4678) or www.merrimackrep.org
What constitutes a good play? For me, it starts with the written word. I'm looking for a compelling story, complex characters that have to struggle with some conflict, authentic dialogue, and a dose of humor even in the most dramatic work. When it transfers from the page to the stage, I want the production to breaThe Life into it, to make it three-dimensional and engage the audience from curtain up until final blackout. Bob Clyman's Tranced, now enjoying its New England premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, does all that and more with a solid cast under the direction of Kyle Fabel.
Dr. Philip Malaad (Mark Zeisler) is an expatriate psychiatrist renowned for his technique of trancing who lives inside his work. Azmera (Zainab Jah), a London graduate student from Africa who suffers from panic attacks, seeks treatment to unearth repressed traumatic memories. After a few sessions, Philip determines that her story must be heard and brings in journalist Beth Rosenthal (Kimber Riddle), who then entrusts the tale to Logan (David Adkins), Under Secretary of African Affairs, and her contact at the State Department. The political intrigue involves the proposed building of the Kanguya Dam and displacement of indigenous tribes in the fictional nation of Guyamba, Azmera's homeland presided over by Dr. Siska, an economically progressive leader and American ally. Something dreadful happened the previous summer when the young woman was working to promote the dam to the villagers, but she can only recall the horrific events when tranced. The ambitious reporter wants the big story first hand, not from an audio recording, and implores Logan to use his influence to delay funding of the dam unless Siska allows an inspection team to check out Azmera's allegations of genocide.
Azmera's story is intricately layered and Clyman masterfully dissects it like an artichoke, allowing the audience to savor each leaf before moving on to the next. Jah is spellbinding as she goes in and out of her tranced state, indicating with the twitch of a finger, rapid breathing, or a faraway look that she has gone under. Her walk and her body language indicate her deepening rapport with the doctor and that she is getting stronger from the sessions. The actress uses every inch of her physical being in transforming from an angry, frightened girl to a self-assured woman, capturing our hearts along the way and making it credible that the other characters are equally taken by her. Zeisler reveals the change in Philip from self-confident, cloistered man of mystique to more expansive, caring advocate, engaging with larger world issues in spite of himself. He wears his secrets close to the vest and struggles with the opposing needs of self-preservation versus safeguarding his client. Adding to the dramatic conflict, he believes that the choice he makes is truly a matter of life and death, and the ambivalence is etched on Zeisler's face.
While Beth and Logan are secondary, each has an agenda that is not always in concert with the other's. Reminiscent of Clyman's earlier play Secret Order (produced at MRT in 2007), the playwright gives his characters a choice between doing something expedient or for the greater good and having to live with the consequences. Beth has the journalist's drive to get the truth out, but she would also like to win the Pulitzer Prize. Logan is a career government official who can serve the public in his sleep and wants to do the right thing, but he has very little power and does not wish to risk his job security at ground zero of a firestorm. Adkins is relaxed and effective in the role, humanizing this bureaucrat who is clearly torn between acting on the startling information presented to him and merely being the gatekeeper to his boss, the Secretary. Riddle succeeds in bringing out the persistent go-getter in Beth, but is less than convincing when trying to show her other dimensions. However, the two have an easy chemistry between them and give life to the banter they share. The same can be said about the wordplay between Riddle and Zeisler.
The verbal jousting is only one illustration of Clyman's artistry; another is the often poetic language ascribed to Azmera, notably when she describes the ghostly faces of departed river dwellers, or the infusion of sardonic humor into the initial give-and-take between the client and her doctor as they size each other up. In addition to the compelling story and intelligent dialogue, Clyman utilizes an interesting device to shift the action from one scene to another. The set consists of the offices of Philip and Logan and, rather than have set changes, each shift is accomplished by synchronized sound and light. Philip clicks his audio recorder on, the light brightens in his office, accompanied by the sound of a cord tugging on a light bulb, and the scene kicks into action; click the recorder off, lighting change, and the scene switches to the other tableau. The doctor and patient meet only in his consulting room, and Logan and Beth convene in his government office, but the reporter travels freely between the two spaces, as she is the link that connects them all. To expedite continuity, the four actors remain onstage throughout most of the play, even when their half of the set is in dimness. The simplicity of the set allows the focus to remain on the dialogue and intrigue, but there is at least a soupçon of African flavor with an artifact in each man's office, and Azmera wears a colorful brown and gold over blouse and large, wooden hoop earrings, giving her an ethnic look.
An impressive hallmark of this production is the attention paid to details, among them the dialects of Azmera and Zeisler. Philip describes his own international upbringing in an opening monologue, which accounts for the difficulty people have in discerning his roots, and results in his speaking in an unusual sort of brogue. He is also able to figure out where his patient has lived by hearing her speech. Music and percussive tones provide greater texture, as well as ramp up the suspense when Azmera describes what she sees in her trance. These little things enrich the experience of the audience, drawing us further into the web being woven on the stage, making our rapt attention (trance?) a set up for the jolt of the final twist that Clyman springs on us.
(MRT is holding a new or gently worn shoe and shoebox drive during the run of Tranced for use during its next production Bad Dates. After the show closes, all items will be donated to SuitAbility, a Lowell-based charity providing interview and work clothing to low-income women.)