“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs.” –Tony Kushner
What distinguishes human society from those of other animals–of chickens, of sharks? It must be our proclivity for storytelling. Our ability to evolve those slimy strings of emotions–of fear, desire, hope–from the primordial ooze of the mind into shared experience.
For those of us whose emotions and thoughts are ravenous and clashing, do we engage them or do we drown?
This week, in the wake of a beloved actor’s suicide, we are reminded that every human–famous or privileged or not–fights to keep some beast at bay. At some point, all of us succumb to nightmares that leave us trembling, questioning what is real. When we give form to these stories and share them with others, they take shape, and we recognize their patterns and threats. Only then can we hope to overcome them.
Through this weekend in New York City, Strangers at Home Theatre Company shares a story about fighting our demons in Don Nigro’s “Seascape with Sharks and Dancer.” Directed, produced, and performed by Strangers’ Tara Sirois and Glenn Provost, “Seascape” is a drama about our universal need for acceptance. It’s the basic story of our existence. Set on the shore of Cape Cod, Ben, a young librarian/writer, rescues a strange young woman, the tempestuous Tracy, from the sea, though she claims she was not drowning but dancing. Tracy finds herself naked and trembling in Ben’s beach bungalow, where he provides her with clothing and food and tries to make her feel at home.
The two clash violently; Tracy is mistrusting, volatile, and full of hysterical remarks, while Ben suppresses his emotions and submits to all of Tracy’s capricious requests. They engage in splintering yet playful conversation, fighting over trivial matters–like whether it’s “marshmallow” or “marshmellon”–and issues of survival alike.
As they become more entangled in each other’s lives, Tracy fights getting too comfortable with Ben for fear of reliving the horrors of her past, and Ben struggles to avoid confronting his own demons. Both characters share their strong histories of fleeing. “I never finish anything,” Tracy says. “You never lose anything if you don’t finish it. Take my advice. Don’t finish your novel. You’ll lose it.”
Until now, Ben has maintained a system of avoidance. He lives alone and keeps his emotions hidden where he keeps his novel manuscript–in the freezer. At night, he dreams of walking through empty houses. “You must be sick,” Tracy tells him. “Nobody has dreams without people in them.”
On their own, they merely survive. Together, they are forced to tackle their fears and fight them. Like fish thrashing about in a net of reliance, Tracy and Ben both realize that however uncomfortable their relationship may be, beyond the net, in the sea, lurk sharks with bated breath.
In the corner of the bungalow, where the characters throw sharp words, a door hints at the opportunity for escape. But would the outside be better? In Strangers’ “Seascape,” the limitations–or un-limitations–of physical space are ever apparent. The set of Ben’s bungalow is layered with fishing net, backlit in a marine blue. It is a trap. But it’s also a home–the epicenter of shared experience. An ocean of life. Shared life. Why, then, are they so afraid?
Strangers hints that “the net” is the security which we both fear and need. To get caught is to offer your self on a silver platter. There’s the potential for mockery, for abandonment, for rape. Ben will become a shark and eat Tracy alive. But as the story conveys, he will also save her from her inner-sharks, the ones that devour her, inside of their home and out.
Storytelling becomes a means of self-expression (“Stories are my bread and butter,” Tracy says), and Tracy offers her tales of squashed animals, expired relationships, and other traumas of her past, which eventually provokes Ben to share his own fears. Her dialogue is conflicting and confused, and Miss Sirois delivers her lines with a rapid tongue, as if they slip and thrash out from within. The words escape, betraying her defenses with obvious insecurity.
Sirois is a graceful actress, offering subtly rather than melodrama, the incongruous smirk or nervous tremble in place of huffy tears and shouting. Mr. Provost is a strong contrast to Sirois’ effervescent Tracy. As Ben, Provost is self-assured and almost Shakespearean in his calculated movements and intonations. Despite the characters’ complexity, Sirois and Provost portray Tracy and Ben with understatement, allowing a more accessible experience to the conflicts of love and acceptance, our most basic needs.
This directive choice is what elevates “Seascape” from a contained story of a crazy girl and loner to a universal conflict of connectedness. Sirois’ Tracy doesn’t shout because of her anger at men; she’s injured and lashing out. Ben is not misogynistic in his desire to snare her; he’s needy and insecure. It would be too simple for the production to harness the obvious comparisons between man and woman and predator and prey and depict “Seascape” as analogy for codependency, feminism, and autonomy.
Strangers at Home doesn’t do it like that: they show that life is rife with tug-of-wars, whether it’s between lovers or within the solitary depths of our minds.
In the end, are we offered answers? Not necessarily. The story of Ben and Tracy’s relationship surges like the ebb and flow of a tide, and it seems they will confront the same problems and nightmares again and again. Are we to fear that they will destroy each other? Or is it comforting to know that however dark our minds may be, however trapped we may feel, life is the sea and the net and the sharks, and we’re all treading together?
Strangers at Home Theatre Company is sharing “Seascape with Sharks and Dancer” this weekend in the 501 Black Box at CAP21. Go see these talented actors give shape to their own stories through Nigro’s complex piece of drama.
Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. To purchase, call 1.929.500.2135 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com.
August 13th-14th-15th-16th: 8pm; August 16th-17th: 2pm
501 Black Box at CAP21. 18 West 18th Street, Fifth Floor, NYC.
Strangers at Home Theatre Company