The Son of Semele 2019 Solo Creation Festival gave us some amazing one person shows. One of these was written by one of my very best friends, was directed by one of the talented directors I know, and performed by a friend who is also IMHO one of the most astonishing performers I have ever seen.
Yet I had no expectations going in, save one of quality, and what might be gleaned from the title, Cell 41.
In what seemed a prison cell, a female Prisoner (Vanessa Cate) sat, looking exhausted and worn down but still vital. She catches the gaze of the audience and smiles a smile full of history. "Hi there" she says. At first, the obvious scenario seems to be the case. Here is someone in a prison, a jail cell, hoping to hear from the governor but has gone through this time and time and time before now. She seeks to maintain her sanity, maybe some fragment of hope amid loneliness and frustration.
Then the odd details start creeping in, like the total absence of any clue for what crime she might be imprisoned. She never mentions execution, or visitors, or her lawyer. She notes how the cell on one side, number 40, seems warm. Almost like a womb. "Life begins at forty" she jokes. That, coupled with Cate's vividly fearless performance, helps make it clearer where we are. Not a genuine prison cell, or at least not a literal one as we understand it.
Cell 41 is Life. The Prisoner believes once she was held in Cell 40, and might eventually end up in Cell 42. What would that be like? As a prisoner she she cannot leave her cell, not without destroying herself. Does not really know from whence she came, nor to what next destination (if any) she may yet go. Some nameless, faceless governor makes vital decisions for her, with a presumed legion of bureaucrats or others between the two. She has been here a long, long time and feels weary but unbeaten, a heroic figure in constant gnawing pain of the soul. Worse (or better) she is haunted by a vision (of herself?) as someone in control, someone beautiful and wise and free. Every time it appears she feels hope, longing beyond words, and as it vanishes her rage at herself for believing feels palpable.
The raw simplicity of the idea of Mark Hein's script seemingly needs little enhancement. In fact the words are very nearly dead without the actor, and Cate brings this Prisoner to vibrant, pained life. Even the design and handling of certain elements (like a mirror, appearing kabuki-style) help, and in terms of that alone director Elissa Polansky also did much to bring this writer's vision to breathing life. In the end, we the audience experienced a searing insight into a genuine (and frankly, both valid and far from uncommon) world view. The world as a prison. We know not from when we came nor where we are headed. Our lives are not under our control, nor do we know what "freedom" from this would really mean, much as we long for it. Hope and despair remain our daily bread, until we leave the Cell for...whatever is next. If anything.
Cell 41 was part of the 2019 Solo Creation Festival by Son of Semele, of the most consistently fine theatre companies in Los Angeles (which is saying something quite a lot). I hope it will see more productions in the future.