Recent Tragic Events by Craig Wright, Whistler in the Dark, The Factory Theatre, 3/9/12-3/24/12, http://www.whistlerinthedark.com/productions/recenttragicevents.html.
Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston, MA) The subject of free will vs. determinism is a fun one to debate, a question that has been the bane of my ex-father-in-law’s existence for decades. It also has been well-covered in theatre and movies, including in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. As this multi-leveled play proves, a play that argues a point must balance storytelling with its agenda to be successful.
Unfortunately, the fine storytelling and performances of Whistler in the Dark’s Recent Tragic Events is marred by gimmicks to drive home the idea that our lives are predestined. The gimmickry, from a sock puppet stand-in for Joyce Carol Oates to some shenanigans that mess with the borders of the play, would be doubly frustrating if it weren’t for the delivery of one of the best acting performances of the year by lead actor Aimee Rose Ranger.
The play begins with an interesting enough premise to stand on its own two feet. Two strangers meet for a blind date on September 12, 2001, a day after a series of terrorist attacks on the U.S. Waverly (Rose Ranger) is preoccupied with reaching her twin sister in New York City and is a distracted host in her apartment. Andrew (Alejandro Simoes), her date, is troubled by a secret in connection with the attacks, and he nearly walks out of the apartment multiple times. They are joined by Ron (Nathaniel Gundy) a trippy jazz musician of a neighbor, who behaves sort of like an intellectual Kramer on acid, and his largely silent date, Nancy (Meg Taintor). Oh yes, and later there’s a famous writer who just happens to be portrayed by a sock puppet.
Rose Ranger’s performance would be enough to hold this play together, and the debate on good will that ensues rarely feels forced because of the emotional grounding she brings. Waverly prances with forced gaiety at the beginning of the play, but there is a deep emotional core in her that comes through as the play progresses. Whenever her character must show the strain of the attacks, Rose Ranger bravely does less on stage, allowing the emotion to seep through her and draw us in. Simoes does decently in showing Andrew’s internal conflict, but he can’t keep up with his scene partner’s many different levels. Gundy’s rapid-fire delivery and physical embodiment of the intense Ron matches Rose Ranger better, with Ron locking Waverly in embraces that feel almost too intimate to watch.
But playwright Craig Wright can’t let things lie, and he gets in the way of his own good storytelling. It’s as if he looked at the script in a fit of anger and decided it wasn’t good enough to make it, so he had better add some whistles and bangs. The troupe pulls off these gimmicks well, if not believably, but the audience feels screwed, as if someone else is pulling our strings. (The defender of free will is a puppet. Do you get it? Huh? Get it?)
The events of 9/11 made many Americans feel as if we were marionettes in a tragicomedy for the better part of a decade. There is nothing wrong with using those events for a backdrop of a comical debate on free will, but it would be nice to feel as if we had a choice to come to our own conclusions.