Loves, Losses and Transformations: “The Raft”

Curtis and Bellingham

Presented by Club Passim
Written by Rebecca Bellingham
Music by Catie Curtis
With special guest Rose Polanzani

Live and Streamed: April 20, 2022
Club Passim
47 Palmer St
Cambridge, MA 02138

Review by Maegan Clearwood

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The marketing language for the musical The Raft likens Rebecca Bellingham’s writing process to piecing together a tapestry: 25-years’ worth of threads, from journal entries to emails to text messages, woven into a singular, sprawling story. But the more-or-less finished product, presented as a workshop reading at Club Passim, feels more like a quilt: distinct stories from two distinct lives that aren’t so much intertwined as they are lovingly stitched at the seams.

Written by Bellingham, with songs by Catie Curtis, The Raft is a two-person musical that traces the ebbs and flows of an intimate friendship, starting with the divergence of their life journeys following college graduation. Rebs, played by Bellingham herself, moves to New York City and settles into the steady life of teaching; whereas Gabby, played by Marlene Montes, pursues her dream of becoming a medical doctor.

The story leapfrogs from there, time-jumping from one character’s triumph or setback to the next, often across the span of years at a time. When we land in a particular year, we’re brought up to speed in the form of long-distance correspondence: emails and text exchanges that Bellingham has crafted into tender, often funny, monologues. Then, Gabby or Rebs lead us into a song that inevitably turns into a duet, an ongoing metaphor for love’s capacity to transcend geographic distance.

The characters only meet each other in real-time/space a few crucial times, which sets up the play’s primary tension: what life events will prove so monumental that the women will have to break the overarching pattern of the play to physically hold each other? I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed at the first of these crescendo moments, which was the characters’ respective weddings.

Why, I bristled to myself, does the apex of women’s lives always have to be marriage? I frequently grapple with this question in regards to my relationship with my own best friend, which has more or less followed the trajectory of the first half of The Raft. We’re both happily partnered now, but I wonder about alternate possibilities of kinship and cohabitation, and how our lives might have turned out had the notion of compulsory hetero-romance not been drilled into us from birth.

I wondered that with The Raft as well, wishing beyond reason that this story didn’t have to be a patchwork quilt. What if it really were a tapestry, with Gabby and Rebs’ love for each other rendering their lives so inseparable that pulling even one thread would unravel the entire fabric?

The Raft may feel a tad conventional in terms of its hetero-romantic through-line, but it’s also driven by some fundamentally compelling feminist impulses. A score made up entirely of duets between women is so simple in theory, yet so viscerally breathtaking in practice. Montes and Bellingham’s voices are perfectly suited for Curtis’ warm and folksy compositions. They never sound like they are dueling; with soothing harmony, one vocalist grounds each song, allowing the other to soar. And Curtis’ twangy musical style is a brilliant match for a story about two wanderers ever-fumbling along life’s twisting path.

The musical is a tad unbalanced for being about mutual friendship. It isn’t all that surprising. Rebs is the stand-in character for the Bellingham.  It makes sense that her emotional journey is more fleshed out. At the same time, it’s disappointing that Gabby sometimes feels more like a supporting character than equal partner.

I also observed that the songs evolve in tandem with the life stories, growing more intricate and metaphorically complex as the characters learn and grow. The downside to this pattern is that the opening number is the least interesting, so the musical takes a bit of warming up to.

I didn’t find myself overly curious about what this play would look like fully produced, as I usually do with workshop readings. The stripped-down, straightforward storytelling format suits the musical’s theme of vulnerability., Perhaps The Raft is a concert musical at its core.

In fact, the simple visuals of the Club Passim performance served as a striking, if unintentional, metaphor for the story itself: two women standing side by side, close enough to touch each other but separated by the constraints of their individual narratives. Still – without physical touch, sometimes even without eye contact – they find ways to meet each other at the edges, stitch by loving stitch.

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