Sans Merci @ The Garage Theatre (2014)
By Jeffrey Kieviet
La Belle Dame sans Merci
“The lady without mercy.” At least, that’s the exegesis Tracy gives and this idea is presented without leniency or forgiveness as harsh realities are played out onstage. I love dark stories, stories that haunt you to your core and leave you dizzy, thinking about what occurred for days to come. I love the darkness because the light that shines through is blinding. This usually applies to dark comedies, the drug addled junkie that laughingly drowns up to his ears in his own filth, the wealthy Wall Street yuppie who loses himself in murder and business card envy, the bipolar desk clerk who starts fighting himself in basements. Sans Merci has moments of humor, but it is far from a comedy, and its power lies in its truth and blunt honesty, not in the laughter.
Without giving too much away, the play starts three years later, after an event that has forever taken light out of two women’s lives. One woman, Elizabeth, is the grieving mother. The other, Kelly, is the guilt-stricken lover. Both women deeply cared for and loved Tracy, a girl who is no longer with us. Elizabeth has tracked down Kelly to find out what happened on that terrible day, three years ago, and what lead to the horrific event. Elizabeth wants to know who this woman was that her daughter loved so much, loved enough to give her life, her love, her everything. The mother and lover have nothing in common but their affection for the dearly departed, but over the course of their night together, they develop a mutual respect for one another.
The play is fantastic. Every heartstring is played like a well conducted orchestra; as soon as the emotion is about to become overwhelming, something happens that allows you to keep watching, that leaves you feeling empowered. For as dark as this show gets, when the cast came out for their bows, I was inspired and full of hope. Even with all the bad in the world, keep fighting, never give up. You’re stronger than you think.
The script is written by Johnna Adams, a local SoCal gal by the look of things (Kelly & Tracy attended UCI) and she captures the Orange County naiveté in Tracy’s discovery of herself, her womanhood, and her desire to help those in need, to venture to far away lands to save a beautiful people from a tragically poetic end. The show is artfully directed by Katie Chidester, creating two worlds separated by time but connected by story. The set is pristine, three quarters of an apartment living room set deep into the stage, with a platform in front serving for the scenes of the past. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but there’s something underneath the platform that visually stimulates the beauty and heartbreak of the script, as well as the poem. The poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” written by John Keats, serves as an instigation for the characters and theme, but Tracy will give you a quick history lesson about the poem and its meaning which draws amazing parallels and builds the tension as certain scenes play out without any mercy given.
And the actresses. The actresses are incredible. Paige Polcene portrays Elizabeth, Tracy’s mom, and never have I so agreed with a character who says such hateful things. Polcene brings great humility to a character with such conservative & confined views, but she is never wrong in what she says. She is upset, she is lost, and she is merciless. But no one can blame her. While some of the things she says and does may be unkind, it is all motivated by love; she loved her daughter so much, and nothing she does will be as horrible as the loss she feels.
Kelly is performed by Cassie Yeager Burke, a fiery redhead who wants to save the world. And Tracy believes in her so much that we believe it too. While Elizabeth is on stage the whole show, Kelly is in every scene, and Burke carries the burden of living in both times; after, when she’s broken and lost the love of her life, and before, when she’s happy and has hope and is falling in love. She blames herself for what happened, and there was a moment, a deep, dark moment when Kelly talks about wanting to end her own life, and there is so much sadness, and she is filled with such emptiness, that for that brief breath, I was thinking she should do it. It is not a comfortable place to go, but what’s the point of theatre if not to take your mind outside the box and feel things and think thoughts that are not normal life. Burke presents this character in such a way where I said to myself, “If you can’t go on, I won’t stop you.” It’s tragic and heartbreaking and magic all at once.
Lastly, Ashley Elizabeth Allen plays Tracy. And this is the only character I feel correct using the word “plays” because she gets to have all the fun on stage. Where as the other two women are stuck in the future with the knowledge of all the horribleness that has happened, Tracy is the past, a young woman blossoming into her adult life with fervor and gusto. She is struggling to find her voice, and we get to see Kelly help her find it. She gets to fall in love with a strong, powerful woman. She gets to travel to a foreign land and explore. Allen creates a girl with all the charm & quirk of youth & hope; it’s easy to see how Kelly falls for her and why her mother is so defeated without her. The play hinges on the audience connecting to Tracy, wanting her to survive as desperately as her mother & her lover, and Allen is spellbinding in her sincere and magic allure. And then the end, the gut wrenching, heartstopping, emotionally explosive end… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you but you’re in for a doozy.
I’ve worked at the Garage Theatre before, it is a small, intimate setting which is utilized for such an personal and profound performance. At the time of this writing, there are still 3 weekends left to see the show. Check out the website, get your tickets, and get to the theater early for a glass of wine. You’re going to need it. Performances are Thursday, Friday, & Saturday @ 8pm, and the show runs until April 26th.
Written by Johnna Adams
Directed by Katie Chidester
The Garage Theatre