Browncoat Pub and Theatre continues to provide emerging playwrights with a laboratory to present and refine new material. Their current offering is “Severe,” an experimental avant-garde trip through the human subconscious written by Ron Hasson. The Browncoat proves a natural venue for a script like this, having been chosen to produce the world premiere of three of Leonard Melfi’s unfinished works.
Like a dream, performers move through vignettes with repetitious dialogue and images that contrast with speech. It is actually the closest thing I’ve ever seen onstage to replicate how the human-mind actually dreams. There are no named characters per se, rather the performers are constantly morphing into each other and archetypes of each other. Some scenes repeat with slight variations, and some characters take us into monologues. Like dreams, things meld and re-form. Just when the audience thinks they have the hang of it, the subconscious throws a curve ball. It is actually an exceptionally well-conceived and executed demonstration of the human subconscious and its imagery.
Fourteen performers trade roles, create furniture, walls, blood, and telescopic stories that unfold on each other. Part of the conceit of the show is that perhaps this dream state is an experiment being performed upon the subject: the audience. Or, is it the playwright himself? One could argue that the central character played by Brandy Jones, Josh Baily, Andrew Liguori, and Abby Winner are the many faces of Hasson, or the audience confronting each other.
Brandy Jones, Dave Bollinger, and Lori Winner comprise a befuddled and concerned triad that might be the authors id, ego, and super-ego. Winner’s sweet, eager friendliness contrasts sharply with Bollinger’s more aggressive and assertive aspects—both of which only amplify Jones’ desire to keep her head down and not be noticed. It is a bit off-kilter to see such a curvy and sexy woman as Jones in a man’s suit, but the unexpected seems to be what Hasson, also the play’s director, is trying to acclimate his audience to. Jones does give a convincing performance as Hasson’s super-ego and leaves the audience with chills, and maybe an upset stomach after the “nightmare” portion of the dream; here, she narrates an unnecessary rape and death. Contrasted with Josh Baily—the perpetrator in the nightmare, who becomes Hasson’s most clear narrative voice for twin scenes about ideas of narrative structure in the human experience—Jones is someone for whom the audience feels empathy.
Viewers want to hold Baily at arm’s length. He does some of his best work to date: There are no levels of the stage he won’t explore, no physical nuance he is scared to try, no odd sound he is unprepared to make. Hasson has asked for an unusual and extraordinary performance from Bailey, and he delivers.
Relative newcomer Andrew Ligouri also turns in a notable performance sharing part of the triumvirate of Jones and Abby Winner. His tall, lanky frame bends and maneuvers in ways that are not only descriptive but surprising. At one point Bailey hads him literally bent over backward from his knees, with his top-half almost lying on the ground. His palpable fear and anxiety at encountering Bailey are response-inducing for the audience.
But it is perhaps Abby Winner as the child version of “the subject” that appears most striking. The subject (Hasson or the audience) who is having this dream grapples with, among other things, coming to terms with one’s own ability to inflict violence, either intentionally or unintentionally. Winner’s outward appearance of a sweet, innocent, beautiful, young girl belies her performance as one who is finding unwanted self-knowledge and personal evolution. It is a very mature performance for an actress with much of her life still ahead of her.
Featured performances aside, “Severe,” like your unconscious mind, really is an ensemble production. Watching the entirety of the cast form tableaus and the entire shifting, morphing visual strata that the sleeping mind has sunk to is truly stunning. Hasson’s ability to communicate his vision to his cast, and have everyone create something on this scale, must be commended.
Dave Bollinger’s sound effects really enhance the experience from heart beats via Thomas Winner to the underscoring of the REM sleep cycles. They are biological and evocative without detracting from the action onstage.
Richard Blaylock’s lighting design begins very faint and cloudy, setting the tone for the hazy, dreamlike state that is essential for creating this piece. Light, or illumination, becomes an increasingly important currency for the players onstage, and Blaylock’s work interacts with them in unexpected but gratifying ways.
Experimental theatre is a tough-sell box office-wise; it is just not for everyone. Theatre-goers who need or want a concrete plot, big-production vales from costumes and sets, or dance numbers with a live band will not find that here. However, to experience art that pushes the envelope and explores deeper questions of the human experience, lin up. “Severe” had a good-sized audience its first weekend and might even sell out its second.
Thurs. – Sat., April 3rd-5th, 8 p.m.
Sun., April 6th, 3 p.m.
Browncoat Pub & Theatre
111 Grace St. • (910) 341-0001