A history play re-conceived as a modernist take on universal themes has the potential to reveal deep truths. Yet in director Pamela Moller Kareman’s design-heavy treatment of Helen Edmundson’s 1993 play, The Clearing, the modernist gloss dullest the overall impact. Concept trumps nuance, speeches are swallowed by actor movements, costuming choices raise more questions than answers, and specifics and universals end up in a bit of a muddle.
The Clearing is set in 1652-1655, after the execution of King Charles I at the culmination of the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell, a Parliamentarian at the head of the anti-king factions, holds the post-war titles of Lord-General and Commander in Chief of the Commonwealth and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. And he feels he has some cleaning up to do. While the play script provides detailed background notes on the oppression, imprisonment, exile, and murder of the Irish after the Civil War, the playbill does not specify any specific historical era nor reference Cromwell’s actions, which may be a loss to modern audiences less attuned to these historical specifics.
However, even an audience without the history lesson can understand the important themes of this production: the plight of the conquered in wartime, and the politicization of interpersonal relationships between victors and vanquished. The Clearing charts the story of a young couple from opposing backgrounds and depicts how their different upbringings affect their decisions when confronted with oppressive rule. The Englishman Robert (Jakob von Eichel) and the Irish woman Madeleine (Quinn Cassavale) have been married for a few years and have just had a child. Now they face the challenge of competing loyalties. Killaine (Lauren Currie Lewis) is an Irish housemaid and childhood friend of Madeleine’s, who may be in love with her (as suggested in this production), and who is at risk of being shipped off by the conquering English. Madeleine’s old boyfriend Pierce (Hamish Allan-Headley) has joined the rebel Irish forces and enters periodically from the forest to glower and announce his political position. Neighbouring farmers Solomon (David Licht) and Susaneh (Tessa Zugmeyer) are loyal and caught in the political fallout.
The characters of Robert and Madeleine revert to their clans without generating any emotional impact. On the whole, we learn the history of the English and Irish sides of the contest rather than feeling their personal stakes. Contemporary costuming choices by Kimberley Matela, including an English politician’s cell phone, often serve to further disconnect the audience from the action onstage. That said, select supporting performances are especially moving, including Licht and Zugmeyer as the loving farmers caught in the crossfire, and the loyal but conflicted Killaine, who gradually loses her mind.
The set by Jason Bolen provides a sleek oak surface suitable for evolving into a variety of settings. The flat upstage wall serves as a village wall, the hull of a ship holding involuntary indentured servants, a forest clearing, and government offices. The eight actors exit and enter around and over this wall and, in this black box theater, wait, change, and reenter from around the back. What could be efficient and spare is in fact distracting. Watching the performance, you wonder what the wall will serve as next. An ornate set of blocks on the stage floor cut up the already limited playing area – an intriguing design for a larger theater but a bit of a squeeze for this tiny one. The concept of the stones and areas over which the actors step (ravines or streams or passages from room to room, depending upon the scene) might work on a larger stage but here impose a weighty design vision on a play that needs some air to breathe.
Kareman’s direction around the wall seems at odds with simpler resolutions. At some points, actors are seated at the edges of the performing area watching the action – perhaps only to facilitate speedy reentries in the next scene. Establishing a permanent “Irish Greek chorus” with the offstage actors could have rooted some of the movement and allowed the audience to grapple with the words of the play itself without the constant scurrying interruptions.
It’s a shame the design decisions serve as distractions rather than frame the story, as this is history worth knowing. Ultimately, this is a frustrating treatment of the historical material.
The Clearing is on at 59E59 Theaters until 23rd October 2016. Click here for more details.