Cohort Report: Windows on Complexity

It’s Friday, March 15. I’m at the MRT theatre on Merrimack St for “spacing day,” watching the cast work painstakingly through the Haunted Life script from start to finish as lines are still being mastered, and props are being tried, and interactions between characters are being fine-tuned, and movement across the stage is being assessed for safety, ease, and naturalness. What works for the actors? What works for the audience? What seems realistic, convincing, true to character? What seems out-of-place or awkward?

There’s a myriad of detail to attend to, a granularity from which any play’s meaning and vision arise and in which it is rooted. It’s easy in any endeavor to miss the forest for the trees, but the trees have to exist for the forest to be seen. And director Sean Daniels is there to see that they are, line by line and action by action within the framework of a set the actors are inhabiting for the first time.

And what a set it is! A towering array of old, overlapping, multi-paned windows lining a glossy black stage on three sides, presenting a visual complexity that mirrors, perhaps, the complexity of values, emotion, goals, and dreams in this play about two generations, a mill town, and a conflicted young man trying to plot his course as a writer in a world sinking into global conflict. Should he enlist?  Should he marry? Should he see the world? Should he stay in school? Should he please his parents? Or should he hew to a path even he can’t see clearly in the maelstrom of his own competing desires and attachments. And there are many windows through which to view his predicament.

The set’s in-your-face offering of multiple perspectives from which to view multiple human realities also suggests the disorienting effect of a creepy hall of mirrors in a haunted house. A fitting suggestion for a play entitled The Haunted Life, since Peter Martin, the young man in question, is haunted — like his creator Jack Kerouac —by his aspirations and obligations and clearly growing addiction to alcohol as both crutch and creative fuel.

But the set is functional as well: it allows actors and stage assistants to move unseen as they ready or deliver props and characters to wherever needed for the next action or interaction occurring in a multiplicity of places from Lowell to the Atlantic to New York City and back to Lowell — at the Martin home, in a bar, on a merchant marine ship, in a New York apartment, and in the hospital room in Lowell where Peter’s father dies. The single set grounds multiple scenes effectively in its own performance tour-de-force. And it’s definitely worth seeing.

So I’m looking forward to attending upcoming rehearsals and watching how all the elements of the play come together to serve the purposes of Kerouac, the director, the actors, and a truly stunning staging achievement.

by Suzanne Beebe, Cohort