Review of Employee of the Year at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas
What are the limits of storytelling? How minimal can a story be and still be a story? How temporally episodic is memory?
Brought to you by 600 Highwaymen, a husband and wife team based in Brooklyn, Employee of the Year, at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, is an unusual theater piece. Using young girls under the age of 10 as the show’s only actors would seem to indicate that the action takes place from the point of view of a minor. And, indeed, the method of the show is at its best while that is the case. It opens with J. (initially played by Rachel Dostal with forthright confidence) recalling disconnected scenes of early childhood that involve her mother. The point seems to be that, even for a nine year old, memories of early life have an unusual clarity and mystery.
Yet the story moves inexorably through time and soon our underage narrator is telling of a date, at age 17, with a boyfriend. Arriving home, she finds that her house has burned down and her mother has died. A couple, friends of her mother, take her in and eventually, in cat-out-of-the-bag fashion, they let her know that she was “adopted” (but not officially adopted) by the woman she thought was her mother, because her birth mother couldn’t keep her. Seeing a picture of a girl who looks like her in the couple’s home and discovering the inscription “Lynn, Boulder, CO” and overhearing the couple’s discussion, J. steals money and takes a bus to Boulder. But things don’t go as planned.
Thereafter the story, as it passes from one childish voice to the next, takes on a rhythm reminiscent of the children’s story Are You My Mother? as J. journeys about, sporadically, over the course of the next 63 years, trying to find her mother. She almost gets close once or twice, perhaps. Along the way she gets taken in by another surrogate mother, her actual mother’s sister. Bits of information about the missing Lynn make us begin to think that her story is probably more interesting than the one we’re hearing about. And that seems to be the point. Though J. has people who love her and has a child of her own—who grows into an adult understandably tired of the “missing mother” syndrome—she only sees fit to tell us about her occasional search for the woman who gave birth to her, and that doesn’t make for much of a life.
The method of storytelling truncates continuity, oddly. Told in an eternal present, everything our young narrators tell us is happening “now,” though the movements of the four girls who take on the role of J. suggest “action” in only the most minimal manner. As a study in rote, affectless presentation, the show is compelling and all due praise to these youngsters, who also sing in crystalline voices a capella songs by David Cale that add lyrical interest to the proceedings. In particular, a song with the lines “I wished I loved you more” is quite lovely, as is the final song, sung by Candela Cubria in her own name as a reflection on the fact that, much as J.—in her 80s at the end of the show—can only recall bits and pieces of the story she’s trying to tell, so Candela may or may not remember being in this play, and will we recall, years from now, her face as she sang the song?
Intriguing as such questions about memory are, Employee of the Year seems contrived as a memory play, one in which anything that we might consider surface or anecdotal interest in a person’s life has been stripped away for a single idée fixe. And as a story of obsession about an undiscoverable past, it would benefit from some rooting interest in J.’s developing persona. For the sake of the purity of its prepubescent muses, the show’s method eschews “acting” in any sense of the term, so that, while we may find one girl more personable than another, we can only accept J. on her own limited terms. In closing, she tells us there “was a lot of blindness” in her life. One could say that putting the burden of such blindness on the audience is the show’s main feature: we only “see” what J. tells us, and that’s not much.
At first, one might assume that the young age of the cast of Employee of the Year has to do with the ultimate age J. reached before she learned the truth about her adoption, but she’s older than the cast is when she learns this. Had she been 8 or 9, we might find a motivation for her arrested development, but Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, aka 600 Highwaymen, seem to want to do away with any such realist conceits. And yet a certain reality does come through: Choices are arbitrary, events are random, a life—even a full, long life—may in fact be missing the one element, in this case the certainty of origin, that would make it meaningful or happy.
The show takes its title from one of the few things J. learns about her mother: that for a time she was “Employee of the Month” in a restaurant. J’s mother had wanted to be an actress and pursued a painter the way J. pursues her, though perhaps with more success. In any case, the specificity of the phrase—one particular employee, one particular month—is subsumed by its generic qualities, and its ephemerality. There will always be another month, another employee. But, J.’s relentless obsession seems to assume, there can be only one mother for one person, in a once upon a time that forever eludes discovery in the future because it already happened.
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
Employee of the Year
Songs by David Cale Design by Jessica Pabst and Eric Southern
With: Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Levy, Violet Newman, Candela Cubria
Long Wharf Theatre: June 20 & 27, 2015, 3 p.m.; June 21 & 26, 8 p.m.