There’s something you have to admire about The Brelby Playhouse, the small, intimate theatre in Glendale, near the corner of N. 58th Avenue; it’s the support it gives to playwrights, new plays, and the forum on which to present them, and that’s an exceptionally positive thing. The end of May saw the premiere of a new play by Brelby Playhouse company member and a facilitator of Write Club, John Perovich.
unexpected (lower caps intentional, though I missed the reason why) is billed as a comedy exploring themes of love, hope, and desire, and all presented in an off-kilter world of magic. Though it appears to combine stories inspired from characters of Greek Mythology, there’s also a skewed nod to Shakespeare. By the play’s conclusion, you sense Perovich has just presented his own oblique version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with a psychotically demented, knife-wielding mother at its center. There’s even a winged fairy creature that comes out at night; not as mischievous or as energetic as Puck, but somewhere in that vein.
The setting is a village by the sea where a man known simply as the Merchant (Cliff Williams) arrives ashore. “You smell that?” he asks the audience. “Love, my friends. It’s in the air.” Merchant is part of the story that’s about to unfold, but he’s also our narrator, talking directly to the audience in a casual, conversational manner, suggesting he hasn’t exactly stepped off a boat with his bag of swag over his shoulder, but wandered off N.58th Ave in Glendale, found the theatre, walked in without a ticket and can’t find a seat. He’s not only bought a bag of Doritos from concessions and offers a chip to someone in the front row but asks if anyone has been to Brelby before? It’s amusing, but with such a low-budget, no-frills approach to the black painted set behind him, the idea you’re on the shore of a village by the sea is never allowed to establish, even once the action begins.
“This is a story about love,” Merchant tells us, proclaiming that love is very, very scary. It’s at this point where pink-haired, hippie earth mother, and ukelele-playing, Olivia (Marina Sharpe) enters, looking for her pet snake, Seth. Evidently, Seth has slithered off and may be somewhere among the seats of the audience. Olivia climbs the aisles searching for it.
Because of this introductory fussy business, there’s a long moment of adjustment before you start to feel whether any real sense of narrative is going to kick-in any time soon, especially when Carolyn McBurney as Ann, an obsessively protective mother of three daughters, continues to enter and interrupt Messenger and his tale, demanding to know why he’s even bothering talking to that bunch of people before them sitting in chairs.
As things continue, a story does begin to take shape, heralded by the arrival of Ann’s three daughters, Penelope (Anabel Olguin), Phoebe (Bertah Cories) and Emma (Mia Passarella). Taking his cue from the world of Greek myths, playwright Perovich uses the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe to tell of first daughter, Phoebe, and a hopelessly romantic bricklayer named Taylor (Devon Mahon). Like those characters from the city of Babylon who talk through cracks in the wall because their of their parents’ rivalry, Phoebe and Taylor exchange their flirtations through a wall that the bricklayer has just built. The Fantasticks may also spring to mind.
Then there’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice used as a gender-bender backdrop to Olivia and another daughter, Emma, where Orpheus’ harp becomes Olivia’s ukelele while the fate of Emma, like Eurydice, reveals where Seth the snake was hiding all this time.
In part two we’re in the land of the dead, the afterlife, where characters murdered in the first half reappear in the second. That winged creature seen in shadows in the first half is Connor (Jonathan Gradilla) and it’s his job to collect those bodies and move them to the depths below. But the problem with Connor is not that he’s been seen by the third daughter, Penelope, it’s Connor’s mother. Based on the goddess Venus, but portrayed as a crass, beauty-obsessed vulgarian straight out of Burlesque with all the vocal characteristics of a cliched, overbearing Jewish mother from Queens (again, Cliff Williams), the woman, like Venus to Psyche, who in Greek Mythology wandered where she should not have wandered, gives Penelope three tasks if she’s ever to be released back to the world above. Frankly, it’s not funny, and worse, the mix of comedy and drama throughout doesn’t work. Sadly, neither does the play.
“You can always be hopeful,” the narrator tells us as plot points and characters begin to tie-up, but having the demented murderess mother Ann find love and expect the audience to ignore everything she’s done and said before, then to root for her because a love has returned is really asking a lot. Love’s labours are truly lost.
Performances range from good to mediocre. All three daughters enliven things, particularly Anabel Olguin as daughter Penelope whose bouncy enthusiasm to complete the three given tasks is infectious, but there are times when certain cast members talk as if they’d rather be anywhere other than in a darkened theatre on a sunny Sunday afternoon matinee; occasionally the energy is so low as to appear as if they’re talking among themselves, while the audience strains to catch what they’re saying.
In the play’s favor, there are times when elements of the production begin to look promising, particularly when you realize what Perovich is doing with the legends and myths of classic characters and setting them in a seaside village, but with clunky direction, odd timing, and a rhythm that never quite finds its footing – there are pauses between scenes long enough to make you wonder if something’s gone wrong – the production falls apart. There’s black humor to be found when the narrator loses control of his own story and witnesses a bloody murder that he never expected – “Plot twist,” he announces, looking spooked – but once the second half concludes, you find that, unfortunately, neither the play nor the production has delivered.