by Leanora Lange
If you watch long enough, something becomes airborne.
So says the unnamed man in A Stopping Place, a solo theater piece written and performed by Stephen Powell premiering at Paradise Factory as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, which ran through July 3rd.
Indeed, many things find their way into the air in this piece. Some crash, some float, and some fall upwards, or so the man describes. Some vanish.
In A Stopping Place, the audience encounters a man struggling—to explain himself, to calm himself, to find a place to put down a red ball. This is a man of contradictions and reversals: he puffs up his ego, and he cowers in a corner; he burns with intensity, and he blows his whole situation off.
Reversal is at the heart of the work, which begins with an image of an alley and one of the sky. The man is in darkness and sings about the sun. Right about halfway through, the man stops telling (or stops avoiding the telling of) his story, and instead presents a story about a princess and a king. After finishing, he points out that some listeners may think that the story is about the princess and others may think it is about the king. At another point, the man claims that he is talking about loneliness or solitude, depending on the point of view.
Thankfully, the piece gives us more than two points of view. The number of problems, the number of histories, the number of moments of personal pain related to this man and others he has encountered are multiple. The number of players in his stories is multiple. And it seems this man is not only a victim.
“You won’t be satisfied until I rip myself open, will you?” he asks the audience, one of many rhetorical questions. Yet guts do not spill. Instead, the insider story, the details of this man’s pain, are left out.
The stage is delineated with torn cloth like bandages or sheets torn into strips to aid an escape. A few simple props adorn it along with an apparently very heavy chest that the man once took down a set of stairs but cannot remember carrying back up. The story of the chest is followed by a lay-person’s explication of traumatic repression: that the hardest things are ones you can’t remember until they come back when you don’t expect them.
As with other similar metaphors in the piece, one might wish that the chest story had been left without further explanation, so that the audience members might make the connection themselves between the story of the chest and the themes of the play, between themselves and this man. As it is, many of the themes of the piece are overexplained, and the traumatic is too easily discussed. Too much is told, and not enough is shown.
Once in a while, in the struggle to explain himself, the man runs toward an audience member, only to be sent back onto the stage with a jolt. The fourth wall was never there in this piece to begin with, but it seems the border of the stage is an invisible electric fence. This jolt is appreciated—indeed, the piece is at its most successful when the man’s struggle is shown physically instead of described or insinuated. Yet the connection with another person—so dearly sought after in the man’s narrative—is not made. A bridge is attempted, but not crossed. Instead of watching this unnamed man struggle to get out of wherever he is, the audience may be left wishing that another reversal could happen, and that we might be let in.
The text gets lost in rhetorical questions, cliché, and telling the audience what it is not about. It is at its best when fables and metaphors appear. One poetic foray into air conditioners was a treat that leaves one wishing for more of such surprises. A hint of concern about air pollution fit with the eco-consciousness of the Planet Connections Festivity.
Powell’s performance is sincere, delivered with a mix of candor and quiet concealment of someone you almost think you know. He looks directly into your eyes. While he spends most of the piece either wandering about or in unassuming and perhaps unconsidered contrapposto, some moments of more dynamic physical expression allow a peek into the potential of his artistic range, if only for a moment.
Clara Pagone’s direction revealed moments of clarity in a piece that otherwise easily gets bogged down.
The entire production team should be commended on their desire to grapple with as difficult a topic as trauma. However, this topic deserves a more mature and studied approach. The call for “No more traumas going forward” in the director’s note is naive and—for a show that claims that “no single person is unscathed by some form of violence, by neglect, by coercion”—contradictory. A certain degree of contradiction serves this show, but too much makes it look sloppy.
Many things crash down in this piece. Fortunately, a few fall upwards.