Review of “Prayer” by Jonathan Kravetz
Nouveau 47 Theatre, Dallas, TX
I spent the weekend running around the Metroplex playing host to the up and coming playwright Kevin Kautzman who had come up to hold a playwriting workshop atNouveau 47’s space in Fair Park. Friday and Saturday were overcast by the gloom of the first hard rain of the nascent spring and I put nearly 250 miles on my car running between the workshop, the premier of Larry Herold’s THE SPORTS PAGE at Stage West in Fort worth and back to my home base of Denton. With Sunday came the sunshine and a renewed energy for the final leg of a theatre packed weekend. Kevin and I sat around the kitchen table drinking French Press coffee and talking about the upcoming production of his play IF YOU START A FIRE at Monday’s Dark Theatre in Manhattan this coming April. As we finished up our talk, I was already jonesing to get on the road back to Nouveau 47 for the final showing of the opening weekend of Kravetz’s play, PRAYER.
I knew very little about the play going in, other than Kravetz’s THE BEAST IN MY PANTS had been read as part of the inaugural “New Works, New Voices” festival at N47 last year. Kevin also had a play read and I knew the calibre of his work stood up to the kind of production that I have been eagerly anticipating at N47 since we first interviewed them before their opening a while back. This is the second show in their second season and I can’t think of a better way to bring in March than to take on a challenging piece of theatre that deals directly with issues close to my own consciousness. While we were packing up to head to Dallas on Sunday, Kevin noticed a number of books on my shelf that had to do with ultra-fundamentalism and the dangers of state sponsored torture/terrorism. I knew that PRAYER dealt directly with those issues and I was intrigued by what I had seen of the set, designed by N47 Technical Director Donny Covington.
We arrived at the theatre with a few minutes to spare and it turned out that the only people sharing the theatre with us on this day, with daylight savings time having wreaked its own kind of havoc on the early Sunday crowds, were Covington’s family and Literary Manager Melissa Hennessey. A more appreciative, thoughtful group I could not have hoped to share the experience of PRAYER with. Covington’s set transforms the N47 space into an oddly shaped cell. The severe thrust of the space and the high, forbidding wall broken only by a metal clad door with bars served as almost the only set. A pair of cots spoke to two occupants that had yet to arrive. I noticed immediately that there were what appeared to be ghostly outlines of bodies on the back wall. Traced as though left by a firing squad, the penitent sinner placed against the wall and dispatched of. As the lights went down for the beginning of the play, one of the prisoners, played by Brian Witkowicz, entered in the dark. His grungy hair and costume spoke of long neglect and while lay on the cot waiting for the arrival of his new cell mate, he oozed a nervous tension that set the mood for what was to come.
The arrival of Jacob Bergson, played by Randy Perlman, sets the play in motion. We are now in a future world where ultra-fundamentalist anti-intellectuals have taken over the country. They rule with a conglomeration of rules straight out of 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. Prisoners are not given the option of council and the farcical concept of the rule of law has no place in the world of PRAYER. Bergson stands accused of being a seditious doctor who has written a book he claims never to have read. Dr. Hawkes, the imagined hand behind the banned book, seems to have created a tome designed specifically for the erosion of blind faith, something that Bergson only understands on a surface level. He pines for his wife, Sophia, and for the children he never had.
Kravetz’s first act is taut and fraught with unrealized tension. The Priest (Dwight Greene) and Sub-Priest (Ben Bryant) along with a guard (Sam Swanson), who conveniently used to shop at Bergson’s stationary store, move with too much ease. Their menace is depleted by the conversational ease they carry with them in their physicality. I didn’t feel a sense of danger in the first third of the show, the acting, while very good, lacked something of the frazzled and frightened nature of the accused but un judged. Act II brought to full realization the brutality of Kravetz’s writing, Bergson enters the stage moving so heavily that it is clear he has been under severe stress, encouraged to confess his crime. Pearlman’s bulk become less softening and more solid, he has withstood an immense amount of torture but will not break because he still believes that he will be given a trial. In a particularly incendiary performance, Pearlman and Witkowicz fulfill the promise of their characters when Bergson challenges Nelson’s (Witkowicz) assertion that God is a bastard child. Not since Sundown Collaborative Theatre’s production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 have I felt such power coming from the stage.
Duane Deering’s sound design brings the world outside the cell into near perfect contrast, the voices of the impending revolution are realistically muffled from beyond the imagined wall of the prison. Clay Cook’s lighting creates the different lighting in the cell with skill, moments of the play take place in near darkness, some only lit by the bars in the door. Costumes by Samantha Rodriguez are at once perfect and cliche; prisoners are perfectly costumed and the guards are predictably a blend of fascist and Nazi. Uncredited makeup design was perhaps some of the most well researched and subtle I have seen. The evidence of all kinds of torture were inscribed on the bodies of the actors in such a way that it was perfectly clear what had happened to them off stage.
Jim Kuenzer, whom I had the pleasure of sitting in the playwriting workshop with earlier on Saturday, created some of the most powerful graphic design I have seen recently. The faces of the characters washed out with only a QR code to give more information about the play, stunning in their simplicity but also creating an other/future world aesthetic.
I left the play with a number of impressions. First, Kravetz’s play, while very good, is not perfect. I felt an ending about three or four minutes before the final blackout. That said, the acting and directing (Diana Gonzalez) created such a rich world that the weakness of the ending didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise. Secondly, sad though it was that I was only in the theatre with five other people, knowing that this kind of intimate and powerful acting is taking place in the metroplex made me happy to know that the promise of N47 is coming to fruition. I was also gratified to see such care taken with the technical aspects of production, too frequently smaller productions are left wanting in this regard. Finally, I left with an evangelical urge to let everyone I know about the powerful work happening through March 24 at Nouveau 47. Go see this play. Really. Go. Drive down, take the DART, carpool. Whatever it takes to get you down to see this worthy work, do it. I’m honored to count Nouveau 47 among the theatres in DFW with whom we have had a long relationship and this is one piece of theatre that makes me look forward to the future of theatre in DFW. Go.
Also, check out the upcoming production of Kevin Kautzman's IF YOU START A FIRE in NYC!
Podcast: A Chat with Kevin Kautzman and Review of PRAYER