I kinda really feel the need to emphasize the above warning this time. So be warned.
"On to level two." Up until that line in Mac Rogers' Ligature Marks at Theatre Unleashed this last weekend, I was simply enjoying an intense, well-written work performed with great honest and skill by a pair of really good actors. Which, honestly, would have been enough. More than enough. Nine times out of ten, that ends up being more than most theatrical performances offer.
With that one line, I found myself in another whole emotional universe. What a surprise! What an utterly breath-taking, wonderful, disturbing surprise.
Up until that moment, I had been following the odd, dysfunctional relationship between Terry (Sean Fitzgerald) and Jill (Liz Fenning). He, as became clear, just left two years of incarceration at a minimum security prison. She, clearly his former girlfriend--although he denies it--desperately wants to renew relations. He seems to know this, expect it, allowed her to give him a ride only reluctantly, yet the two clearly have a major amount of dynamics between them. Frustrating, sometimes funny, often uncomfortable, but real. The details of this--from both playwright and performances--hit to the bone. Interestingly, many details about their back story don't come out for a long time--and by the time they do, we've stopped asking. We see and grow to understand their present.
Or think we do. With the above line, we the audience fall through a trap door into a depth about these two which shocks. By then, I for one thought we'd pretty much reached bottom. To be totally honest, given Rogers' previous play Viral, I was feeling a tad disappointed. His earlier play had so much more meat than what I'd seen so far. But only a tad, because this was still good stuff, way above average.
Then we step through the looking glass. And it feels totally right, utterly seamless. Entire new facets of these people and their relationship open up to our startled eyes. Terry and Jill seemed odd, eccentric before. We (or at least I) liked them, sometimes in spite of themselves. But even before that line they start peeling back some layers to a depth and individuality that shows just how much Terry and Jill "get" each other.
More, none of this jarred. One thing that impresses me about Rogers as a writer is he's not afraid to write what screenwriter Philippa Boyens called dialogue that is "performer dependent." Without two skilled, talented, charismatic and to some extent fearless performers this play doesn't work. Fitzgerald and Fenning on the other hand remain totally alive, intensely "into" the undercurrents of Terry and Jill from the moment they walk onto stage. The way one looks at the other--and how he avoids looking at her. The hostility suddenly melting away. How they fight, what they fight about, what they agree upon and find interesting--all adds up in a spellbinding story which blends devotion and resentment, dominance and submission, hope and despair. More, I can tell you this production, directed by Jacob Smith, does what a lot of storytelling fails to do--earn its ending.
No small feat.
Ligature Marks plays at Theatre Unleased, at The Belfry 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood, CA 91602. Tickets are $20, and reservations can be made at firstname.lastname@example.org. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until March 7, 2015.