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Loss, Resilience and Disaster: “Colony Collapse” Engrosses at Boston Court

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in "Colony Collapse" at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

Chris Connor and Riley Neldam as the distanced father and son in “Colony Collapse” at The Theatre at Boston Court [photos: Ed Krieger]

For many who have been paying attention, the concept of “colony collapse” is a part of the larger concerns over a poisoned environment and the threat to humanity this involves. The term is the common name for the disappearance of honey bees, particularly in North America. Originally thought to be a disease, now seen as a consequence of certain pesticides, the condition causes bees to venture from the hive only to become disoriented and fail to return. As the hive shrinks, it gradually reaches an unsustainable level: too few bees in too bad a shape to sustain the queen or her larvae. The hive dies out.

Take this as metaphor in the aptly named “Colony Collapse” by Stefanie Zadravec, now in a world premiere production at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena. The play examines manifestations of tragedy and loss, and the human resilience which often kicks in, at least eventually, unless the people it happens to are too weakened for that to occur. Beautifully constructed to juxtapose several stories of parents whose children have disappeared against the tale of a teen whose parents are unable to parent him, it proves intense and absorbing from start to finish.

Director Jessica Kubzansky knows how to use the Boston Court performance space particularly well, dressing her stage with the characters in ways which fill the space, and using sound as irritant and underscore to the desperate power of the play itself.

Initially one meets the parents of the disappeared: Jully Lee as a mother who let go of her young son’s hand just a moment only to find him gone, Adrian Gonzalez as the young father who gave in and let his son walk home from school only to have him never arrive. Julie Cardia is the frustrated mom who tossed her rebellious teenaged daughter from home only to have her vanish, with Tracey A. Leigh and Leandro Cano as loving parents of an autistic boy who disappeared out an open door when his mom fell asleep on the couch. Each creates a carefully crafted portrait, as each character makes an individual passionate plea for understanding, wrestles with horrific guilt, and slowly, specifically, finds a way to carry the burden of loss.

Balanced against these, the play concentrates on the family of Jason, whose divorced, meth-addicted mother, Nicky, finds him useful only as a crutch, and whose father, Mark, recently released from a prison sentence associated with Jason’s actions and, along with his second wife Julia, finally clean and sober, wants nothing to do with him at all. Tired of trying to keep his mother from starving or selling herself, Jason pushes his way into his father’s world. This includes a large orchard Mark has taken on but knows nothing about sustaining, try though he might.

Emily James' ghost Girl ties the play's themes together.

Emily James’ ghost Girl ties the play’s themes together.

Floating through these scenarios is the ghost of a girl who disappeared, who becomes the play’s narrator and occasional philosophical touchpoint. Through her we examine the insignificance if individual lives, even as we watch the affect each individual in the play has on their own immediate worlds.

Emily James proves fascinating as The Girl, the ghost stringing elements of the play together from a wide variety of physical vantage points. Paula Christensen offers up a not-quite-stereotypical tweaker as Jason’s mother, edgy and strung out, ready to pontificate on motherhood even while totally incapable of living that role. Sally Hughes creates the fragile Julia, for whom addiction was a matter of escape from a life she can see beginning to fray. Chris Conner’s balance of detachment and sentiment in Mark creates a very slippery support for either Julia or Jason to hang on to.

Yet what truly captures the attention above all else has to be Riley Neldam’s Jason. Strong but hurting, lost but searching for definition, he manages to create in the character a sense of adulthood that the supposed adults cannot reach, while still carrying the vulnerability of a teenaged boy. Still, what is to become of someone so connected to adults incapable of connection?

Engrossing though it is, “Colony Collapse” is not easy watching on any level. The sense of loss which permeates the play is quite palpable, and very intense. Yet, though it concentrates on a family which cannot help but destruct, the periphery balances this with a strong sense of, if not redemption, at least the possibility of moving forward. In a world where these kinds of intimate losses happen virtually every day, perhaps that is what one must cling to, if only to avoid the collapse of one’s own colony.

What: “Colony Collapse” When: Through March 20, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance Wednesday, March 16 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $35 general, $30 senior (62+), $20 student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

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Marital Strife in Extremes: “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of "The Dance of Death" at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Long before Edward Albee’s portrait of a manipulative, wretched, psychologically sadistic marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there was August Strindberg. A man whose view of matrimony can be gleaned from the 19th century playwright’s four unsuccessful marriages, Strindberg examined the twists and turns of relationship in several works, but never created a more mutually vicious version than that in “The Dance of Death.”

Now opened as the third leg of their three-play fall repertory, the production of this work at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates an equally stunning portrait of deeply psychological marital dysfunction, laid out in front of a guest who finds himself gradually swept up in the grimly manipulative human interactions there. A new translation by Conor McPherson, receiving its west coast premiere, brings this play out of the somewhat dated tonalities often associated with “classic” works into a contemporary language framework which makes the play both more accessible and more disturbing.

Co-Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct this one “straight”, allowing the ferocity and isolation of the characters’ worlds to create movement without the unnecessary embellishments which sometime cloud their productions. The result is stark but continually interesting. Like watching a train-wreck, you just can’t look away from these two as they destroy the world around them. Even for the third character onstage, and certainly for us out there in the dark, that the point.

Elliott is Edgar, an aging misanthrope whose self-absorption and sloth have kept him a low ranking army officer assigned to a bleak island outpost. He has no friends, no money, possibly no food, but vibrates with a strangely concocted dignity nonetheless. Susan Angelo is Edgar’s wife of nearly 25 years, Alice. A former actress yearning for the life she could have led, she mourns absent children and concocts plots to overthrow her husband.

Into this world comes Alice’s cousin Kurt, played by Eric Curtis Johnson. An earnest man of significant rank, he has demons of his own to deal with, but soon falls into the clutches of these relatives who devour his finer sensitivities over the course of the play’s two hours.

Angelo and Elliott prove a fine match, with energy levels and intensities so similar the whole piece becomes an unpredictable fencing bout. Likewise Johnson provides an interesting counterbalance to all that ferocity, and proves subtle in his changes from compassion to an increasing loss of veneer. Indeed, this may be the most difficult part in the play – to change while those around you essentially do not.

Angela Balogh Calin has created an interesting set – at once solid and see-through. It makes for unique symbolism, but removes some of what would seem to be elemental claustrophobia implied in the script. Her costume designs, on the other hand, quickly and accurately evoke the needed elements of attitude, class and title, like visual shorthand.

“The Dance of Death” provides a fascinating character study, and – as with Albee’s later play – considerable meat for discussion. Its view of marriage as a death match, and its dismissal of the collateral damage are disturbingly timeless, making it surprising the play isn’t done more often. Perhaps this new translation will help change that, so that like “Miss Julie,” this Strindberg work becomes a part of the canon.

In the meantime, though not for the faint of heart, “The Dance with Death” is well worth seeing. Just don’t expect something Halloween-y. Sadly, its Poe-esque name has already led to some misconceptions in that department.

What: “The Dance of Death” When: in repertory with “The Tempest” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 8 p.m. October 24, 25, 31, and November 15; 7:30 p.m. October 30; 7 p.m. November 9 and 23; 2 p.m. October 25, November 15 and November 23 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush with ID, group rates available Info: (626) 356-3100, ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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