Pilgrims: Progress, Uphill.
It is rare to see a play that manages to get stronger as it progresses. Jamie Carmichael's new work, an ambitious stew of Sufi poetry, astral projection, strained relationships and lost family, manages this feat, revealing thought-provoking moments of beauty in spite of some pretentious trappings.
Pilgrims deals with siblings Serge (Eric Murdoch) and Lauren (Emily Young), the wayward children of rich and remote parents, whose forced affection for one another masks a deep emotional distance. Callow Serge takes a job as personal spiritualist to grieving Tamara (Catherine Gowl), while wild child Lauren takes Alvie (Rufus Tureen), a bright but awkward fellow college student, under her wing. Romances develop, Serge and Tamaras' graceless and physical, the younger pair playful but platonic. When tragedy strikes, our protagonists must search for a way to cope with personal loss, and with the strange metaphysical events that unfold.
There is much to admire in this production. Carmichael seems to be a young writer bursting with ideas, who wants to bring to the audience all myths and moments that have touched his own heart. This enthusiasm, however, makes the work a little too full, and he lets legend stand in where plot explanation might have been more enjoyable. A few times, characters break the fourth wall, and at one point Alvie (who seems a likely stand-in for the playwright) tells us, "If you have any questions about what's going on, now's a good time to ask your neighbor.", as if apologizing for making us work so hard to keep up. His worst offence, however, is his absurdly gratuitous use of halting half-thoughts to show us that his characters can't deal with what they are feeling. These unfinished sentences become very frustrating, slow down the scenes, and make us wonder why the other person in the scene doesn't tell them to just spit out what the mean. Still, Carmichael has a poetic way with words, and brings us characters that we feel we know.
The actors bringing these travelers to life have a challenging task, and for the most part, fare well. All of them play a number of sidereal characters in addition to their difficult main roles. Mr. Tureen in particular is shyly charming throughout. He creates an instantly recognizable persona, and making it obvious why the brazen Lauren would want to protect him. Murdoch has some exceptional moments of high emotion towards the end of the play, but his secondary roles had an off-puttingly broad feeling. Ms. Gowl is wonderful and nuanced, and the beautiful Ms. Young manages to let on that Laurens' obnoxious, hurtful behavior is a shield for a lost, vulnerable soul.
Much of the stage direction is made explicit in the script, and director Geordie Broadwater brings it together artfully. However, the gimmick of having the actors create the all sound effects, such as birds and water, is very distracting. Melissa Goldman's' minimalist set and Joshua Randal's' lighting help to create an allegorical mood.The show is performed by the fledging Babel Theatre Company, and runs through July 29th at the Medicine Show Theatre on West 52nd Street.
Pilgrims/> shows promising work by everyone involved, but at times has the feel of a work in progress.
Photos by Ben Strothmann. Top: Emily Young, Eric Murdoch, Rufus Tureen, and Catherine Gowl
Bottom: Eric Murdoch and Catherine Gowl