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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Troubling Memory of Loss in Christopher Shinn's Dying City

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Andrew MacIver as Craig and Katie Tandy as Kelly. - WM. DIEDRICK RAZO
  • Wm. Diedrick Razo
  • Andrew MacIver as Craig and Katie Tandy as Kelly.

As the artistic director of Anton’s Well, a fledgling East Bay theatre company, Robert Estes is a busy man. In addition to starting a new theatrical venture, he is also the director of both plays running concurrently in the Well’s condensed second season: Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, and the Bay Area premiere of Christopher Shinn’s drama Dying City, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama in 2008 (the same year Tracy Letts won for writing August: Osage County).

The play takes place in one woman’s apartment wending backwards and forwards in time. We first meet Kelly (Katie Tandy), a Harvard-educated therapist, as a widow in mourning for the death of her husband Craig. He was killed while on active duty as a soldier in Iraq. The details of his death are slowly revealed through flashbacks, and a present day visit from his twin brother Peter. Both roles are skillfully played by one actor: Andrew MacIver. He steps off stage as Peter and returns moments later as Craig, with better posture and in deeper voice. The fact that they’re twin brothers feeds the illusion. 

click to enlarge Katie Tandy as Kelly and Andrew MacIver as Peter. - WM. DIEDRICK RAZO
  • Wm. Diedrick Razo
  • Katie Tandy as Kelly and Andrew MacIver as Peter.

Peter seeks Kelly out in order to grieve with and confide in someone who knew his brother as well as he did. But Kelly has understandably shut down, consoling herself by binge-watching marathons of Law and Order. She has a lovely theory and monologue about the popularity of the show but that doesn’t alleviate her depression, nor does reuniting with her dead husband’s brother. Peter, a successful actor, appears to be acting out sexually and falling apart professionally. While the Iraq War may have killed Craig on another continent, the people he left behind have internalized the loss and are at war with themselves back at home.

click to enlarge Katie Tandy as Kelly - WM. DIEDRICK RAZO
  • Wm. Diedrick Razo
  • Katie Tandy as Kelly
Staged in a capacious salon at the Berkeley City Club, it’s the most intimate of theater spaces. Sometimes the actors are inches away, brushing past the front row of chairs. It’s a terrific feat of the imagination that they can be aware of the audience’s close proximity and focus on their task of storytelling. This is theater stripped down to its bare essentials: two actors responding to one another, vulnerable in front of a group of strangers. You can see the fierce and unwavering intelligence in Tandy’s brow just as clearly as the way she holds a mug full of tea.

It’s disconcerting, at first, to be physically close to them. You lose your anonymity without the cover of darkness and the remove of a distant stage. Slowly though, the immediacy heightens the sense that you’re either a participant in or a witness to the drama. This is the very definition of virtual reality. The suspension of disbelief kicks in because there’s not enough distance to escape from it.

And at times you do want to escape because Dying City contends with adult emotions, grief and the complications of desire. The atmosphere in the room throughout the performance is subdued but tensely coiled with emotion. By paying thoughtful attention, the audience members participate in an actors’ studio, and, as if by osmosis, experience the process of bringing a theatrical creation to life.

Dying City through Dec. 20 at the Anton’s Well Theater Company, Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley,

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