BWW Review: Theater Schmeater's Potent SWALLOW: A Visceral Examination of Loneliness
Three isolated people deal with loneliness and its companion, despair, in the intensely felt and deeply moving "Swallow", now performing at Theater Schmeater. This all takes place in an undefined city setting, preventing any familiarity from the start. Sam (played by Jasmine Joshua) is male-presenting, assigned female at birth, who not-so-gracefully hits on Rebecca (played by Mahira Zook). Rebecca's husband cheated on her, and she self-soothes with alcohol. She's also recently had an accident, rendering her face conspicuously scarred, causing extra anguish to the already superficial Rebecca. Anna (played by Jasper Katie Driscoll) lives in the apartment above Rebecca, and she's a bit unhinged. She spends all of her time on bizarre, unsanitary "projects," and she refuses to leave her apartment. After an evening where Rebecca finds herself intoxicated and hiding from her ex-husband, she scratches at Anna's door for help, and the two strike up an unlikely acquaintance speaking exclusively through Anna's mail slot.
Rebecca, Anna, and Sam interact, but their stories feel entirely separate. A lot of it has to do with director Julia Griffin's vision to keep each character physically separate. Even moments of sexual intimacy are pantomimed. Through clever use of a tri-fold, metal screen (the show's singular set piece), the three characters stay physically divided. Stef Smith's writing never fully permits the characters to have a conversation, despite the characters' best attempts to connect with each other.
This show captures the feeling of loneliness beautifully, particularly its corresponding desperation. Much of that has to do with the commitment and vulnerability of the actors. Sam is the victim of a hate crime, and Jasmine Joshua has to physically demonstrate the moment when they were queer-bashed and beaten nearly to death. It's a devastating moment, and an acting triumph. Only moments before, Joshua puts on airs as a macho dude hitting on Rebecca.
"Swallow" isn't all woe and misery-Anna especially adds a comedy counterweight to the show's collective tragedy that makes "Swallow" easier to, well, digest. Jasper Katie Driscoll's portrayal is consistent and fervent, but never lets Anna's mania become too jokey. Many productions have a prototypical "crazy woman", but "Swallow" is one of the few that gives the character depth and makes her sympathetic.
Unfortunately for Rebecca, her problems feel shallow in comparison. But this disparity, in addition to the comedy, gives the show room to breathe. It's not opinion: objectively, Rebecca is in a much more privileged position than Anna or Sam. Mahria Zook does a great job portraying a character that probably thinks that her problems and struggles are comparable, all while making Rebecca likeable. This is no easy feat: Rebecca, at one point, shares that she never knew before what loneliness felt like. This was in the company of a trans man and a woman who hadn't left her apartment in months, maybe years.
The dialogue consists of many lines that can be interpreted either on a literal or figurative level, such as Rebecca's declaration of never feeling loneliness before. It also consists, unfortunately, of a lot of narrated action. At first, this too could perhaps be interpreted on a figurative plane to isolate the characters even more by isolating them from the audience. When Sam gives a verbal play-by-play of their morning routine, it makes them feel even less human and more like a character. Picture it: someone grabbing the sock bulge in their pants and saying "I grab the sock bulge in my pants". It's unnatural, especially if it's happening in real-time. It may be a mechanism for further metaphor, but it's very distracting.
Ironically, there was quite a lot of explaining in this abstract performance. Not only with the narrated actions, but there's quite a bit of redundancy in the dialogue so that there's no way audiences can miss narrative motifs. With great acting, the themes of sorrow, abandonment, and survival reveal themselves on their own. It's a testament to this cast, really, that the caliber of acting makes thematic dialogue feel superfluous.
"Swallow" is an acute examination of loneliness elevated by a talented cast. Despite some redundancy in the storytelling, I give Theater Schmeater's visceral "Swallow" a moved A-. Jasmine Joshua's performance is incendiary.
"Swallow" performs at Theater Schmeater through February 24, 2018. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.schmee.org.