Actors Touring Company

Coming to Grips

Review of The Events David Grieg’s The Events, brought to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas by Actors Touring Company, directed by Ramin Gray, is a play very much of our time. In the twenty-first century, so far, there seems to be no end to random acts of violence directed, most often, by a lone gunman against some more or less helpless community—school children, college students in class, movie-goers, office-workers, or, in Norway (the event that jump-started Grieg’s effort), campers. In The Events, “the events” refer to a young man opening fire on a community choir in an unnamed town. Claire, a clergyperson and the leader of the choir, survived, and has been trying to come to terms with the events.

One way to do that is by getting her choir-members to deal with it through various efforts—from the intrusions of shamanic exercises to, one supposes, consciousness-raising forays into multicultural music. That’s the humorous side of the play, which stems from the fact that Claire, played with very natural, real-person charm by Derbhle Crotty, is essentially an outgoing, positive person who finds herself trying desperately to fit the atrocity into a worldview that could make sense of it. The reality of Claire’s position as a choir-instructor is ably supported by the play’s use of actual choirs, local to wherever the play is staged. This adds not only actual members of the community to the drama, but also creates, for the viewer, a very telling sense of the random and fortuitous. You may know someone onstage, or not, but in either case, you are aware that those onstage might as easily be from the audience. Grieg’s view of what makes our experiences “common” takes its impetus from the way “we” all suffer from attacks upon random citizenry and translates it into a changing collection of persons who just happen to be there when you are. The night I saw the play, the Greater New Haven Community Choir took the stage and did a fine job, particularly in the soprano parts.

Claire, obsessed and still likely in shock and mourning, goes off to interview those who knew the young man—The Boy, and everyone else Claire interacts with, including her gamely supportive partner Catriona, is played by the same actor, in this case Clifford Samuel. The interest this affords is in letting the “others” to Claire’s search for answers morph at will between different persons. In a sense, Claire is always interrogating “The Boy,” so why not let him be everyone? The problem it creates has to do with characterization, where little effort is made to differentiate the people Claire comes into contact with. At one point, interviewing the man The Boy chose as political spokesperson—a racist whose views seem to jibe with those who, for instance, would drive all non-indigenous persons out of a once homogenous country--, as well as The Boy’s father, and another boy The Boy went to school with, the differences in person are mainly suggested by changing to a different chair. That’s not so troubling when these persons can be reduced to different speeches of denial—denial that they had much to do with The Boy and insistence that they cannot be implicated in his murderous actions—but it is a bit more bothersome when Catriona and The Boy himself take the stage.

These latter two roles aren’t simply ancillary to Claire and The Boy. Catriona takes on stature as the person whom Claire herself begins to abuse in her anxiety. Those events seem to suggest that trying to deal with violence—as a choice, as an act, as an aftermath—might make bullies of us all, but that level of the play would be aided by a different actor for the role. Similarly, using the members of a local choir to be, en masse, a character, or, in small ways, voices who read from scripts to ask questions or respond as audience members to The Boy’s fantasy of himself as a spokesman for a celebrated warrior ideal (or is that Claire’s fantasy of him?), undermines a sense of individuality. In other words: there really is no one else in this universe but Claire and The Boy, which may be true from Claire’s perspective, but certainly isn’t true from The Boy’s nor from that of anyone else who suffered loss from the events. Claire becomes a representative of an idée fixe. So, finally, much rides on her ultimate meeting with The Boy.

It should be said that the lead-up to that event is Claire’s “fame” as the woman who advocates forgiveness for The Boy. She, it seems, has understood the Christian injunction to forgive those who trespass against us, particularly those who strike us with the greatest enmity. That aspect of Grieg’s play draws upon the notion that someone who strikes against a community from within that community is still part of that community and can’t be relegated to “an enemy” or outsider status. The soul-searching that comes from such events is due to the fact that the killer not only killed some of us but is one of us. Claire’s position becomes the one that a Christian community should favor, and yet, that’s not how the general or legal community necessarily views it. And we have doubts as to how sincere Claire’s forgiveness is too.

Indeed, the weakest part of Grieg’s play is in the scene between Claire and The Boy. In part, this has to do with the labels Claire brings to the meeting: either The Boy is or was insane, or he is or was evil. Neither tag does much to illuminate what, in fact, he is. And Grieg doesn’t seem to know either. What we get is a kid much like any kid—one who is now and for the foreseeable future a prisoner, a ward of the State, we might say, with a psychotherapist and many more people, than ever before, concerned about his well-being. What he isn’t is insane or evil. Perhaps the point is a lesson for Claire but, in dropping any of the racist rhetoric that seemed to motivate The Boy, the scene plays out with no great difference between Claire and The Boy, as if all that separates them is which side of the gun they were on, that day. I think we might reasonably expect a bit more consistency from racist ideologues and clergy both.

The staging of the play on the wide, mostly bare stage—but for a piano, risers, and chairs that Crotty arranges and removes at various times—at the Yale Rep has an air of rehearsal and demonstration, as though we—the audience—happened upon a choir class and got caught up in an enactment of recent events by its leader and another member. What draws us into the play is its vivid sense of Claire’s personality and her very real sense of not being adequate to what she must live with and make sense of.

In the end, the community she has striven to serve serves her as a place to enact her commitment to others and to the healing and communal aspects of song, offering if not answers about the recurring wounds to our social body, then at least a figure for the therapeutic loss of self in the embrace of the communal that seems to elude the haters, the attackers, and the dispossessed.

The Events plays for two more showings, today at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

The Events By David Greig Directed by Ramin Gray

Commissioned by Actors Touring Company and Drammatikkenshus, Oslo Co-produced by Actors Touring Company, Young Vic Theatre, Brageteatret and Schauspielhaus Wien

Composer: John Browne; Actors: Derbhle Crotty, Clifford Samuel; Pianist: Magnus Gilljam; Designer: Chole Lamford; Lighting Designer: Charles Balfour; Sound Designer: Alex Caplen; Associate Director: Polina Kalinina; Dramaturg: Oda Radoor; Dramaturg: Brigitte Auer; Casting Director: Julia Horan; Company Stage Manager: Jess Banks; Technical Stage Manager: Jon Jewett

Participating choirs: New Haven Chorale, Western Connecticut State University; Greater New Haven Community Chorus; The Wayfaring Choir; The New Growth & Friends Choir, The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Mass Choir; West Hartford Women’s Chorale

Yale Repertory Theatre June 24-27: 8 p.m.; June 28: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.