Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Feather – An Extraordinary Journey through Despair, Hope and the Human Condition

The play “Feather” by Bobby Ryan is a masterpiece. The recent run of this play in Portland’s Theater! Theater! offered an exceptional synergy of script, set design, world-class acting and directing that is all too rare.

It is, to be sure, not for the faint of heart, or any of us who are squeamish about a poignant, lucid, no-holds-barred look at the full realm of human experience. With the utmost emotional clarity, the play explores the darkest nights of the soul with unrelenting authenticity and consummate human insight. Bobby Ryan masterfully avoids any sort of cliché or predictability, even to the end of the drama. I was left with a breathless expectation of faith and hope without being given a clear sign of whether this hope could ever be fulfilled.

I have never seen a theater production that did so much with so little; the stage setup was exquisitely stark and simple, with a look and feel between an ancient farmhouse and a spider’s web, yet the actors took the audience into a wide range of places and times with a brilliant combination of blocking, dialog, and flawless audio backdrops and lighting.

I found myself feeling as if I had come to intimately know the characters over the course of the play, resonating with them even as I would cry when the tragedy of their circumstances was brought ever more clearly into focus. This is particularly impressive in light of the fact that I personally know two of the actors quite well – sweet, kind, warm beings of light who are brilliantly creative and fully in touch with themselves.

Yet within less than a minute of the beginning of the play, I was utterly convinced that they were – to their core – the characters they portrayed. And each of these characters was defined in large measure by deep challenges and tragic limitations that bore no relationship whatsoever to the people I know.

The degree of nuance in acting in Feather is stunning. Bobby and Tyler Ryan in particular found ways to convey volumes of emotion and character in even the smallest body language gestures – the tilt of the head, a slightly accelerated blinking of the eyes or a momentary squint, subtle movements of the fingers of either hand … rarely does one see this level of subtle expression even in film, much less live theater.

The grandmother (played by Trish Egan) does a fantastic job of embodying someone who has been dealt a harsh reality and who is both resigned to and deeply bitter about her circumstances; her grandsons became her charge when the boys’ mother dies. In the type of paradoxical embrace of human complexity that is a hallmark of this play, moments of sweetness and loving compassion for the boys are intermingled with hard-drinking anger, hints of incestuous transgressions, and sometimes soft-pedaled but nevertheless brutal mistreatment.

Gabriel (played by Tyler Ryan) is a classic elder brother who seems unswervingly focused on maintaining appropriate, socially acceptable behavior and appearances against a mind-numbing backdrop of tragedy and seemingly insurmountable levels of family dysfunction. His tight-lipped, rigid, ultra-controlled approach to life and unwillingness to show even a hint of vulnerability provide a tremendous foil for the unbridled open expression (and deep-rooted mental/emotional illness) of his younger brother Mak. Gabriel’s unswerving focus on leading a stable, “normal,” socially acceptable and comfortably monochromatic (and essentially invisible) life might leave a lesser actor with a very limited emotional palette, yet Tyler found ways to evoke incredible feeling and expression within the confines of this role.

By contrast, Mak (played by Bobby Ryan) is one of the most emotionally rich characters one could imagine, and Bobby’s portrayal of the character he wrote into existence is absolutely magnificent. In many ways, Bobby’s exploration of Mak’s emotional landscape is redolent of the searing forays into the subconscious one might expect from Hamlet or Death of a Salesman. At other times one cannot help but to be awestruck by Mak’s childlike (and childish) innocence. From the very outset of the play, Bobby’s embodiment of Mak is absolute – and totally captivating. Watching Bobby play Mak is truly the gift of seeing a master of stagecraft at work.

I believe that, in seeing this play at its premiere in Portland, I was in the rare and privileged position of seeing a classic work by world-class artists for the first time ever. It is my hope that there will be many more opportunities in the future, and that thousands of others will be afforded the chance to experience such a magnificent offering.