Out of Beach
Five Characters Look For Something In the Emptiness In This Inventive Production
St. John’s Church at 27th and St. Paul streets has frequently stepped in for theater groups in transition. The problem: Since being damaged by fire years ago, the cavernous interior with stripped walls and occasional gaps in the plaster leaves earthlings at a distinct disadvantage. Even when St. John’s is packed with 4-year-olds boogieing at the Spaghetti Disco, the place looks spooky. So imagine what a night at the theater with an audience of eight looks like.
With this striking BYOC—“Bring Your Own Chair”—production, the temporarily itinerant Run of the Mill Theater has turned a possible handicap into a major asset. Playwright Edwin Sanchez is, like many of America’s younger generation, intensely involved in atmospherics. Icarus takes place on a beach under the stars, or in the early morning sunlight. That involves sand, beach houses, an ocean, and lots of empty space. St. John’s Church is made for that. It also leaves the audience feeling that they’re on the beach, surrounded by the actors, being gradually absorbed into this weird but accessible play.
As the lights go up, Altagracia (Janel Miley) runs out onto the beach, arms waving, back to the audience. She turns around; her face looks like it’s been soaked in acid. Next comes her crippled young brother Primitivo (Jerry Brown) in a wheelchair. They’ve found an abandoned beach house, which they break into. They initiate their routine: Each morning Primitivo drags himself to the ocean, swims out, in training to “touch the sun,” and returns. They spend the rest of the day planning for his imminent fame: Altagracia coaches him in interviews, acceptance speeches, autograph signing, and impromptu conversations with Steven Spielberg.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ellis (Chris Graybill) wanders up and plants himself under the porch, occasionally emerging with his teddy bear and a large leather satchel full of dreams, and sits on the beach staring at the sand and chanting, “I’m not staring, I’m not staring. . . . I’m staring.” On stage right, a washed-up Puerto Rican movie actress (Marisol Chacin) frequently makes an appearance on her porch, surrounded by publicity shots, waiting for people to recognize her. And then Beau (James Caran) arrives, covered in a striped ski mask, with only his eyes visible, presumably covering up some horrible disfigurement. He comes to the beach house expecting to spend a week in silence, nursing his emotional wounds.
The play becomes a modified dreamscape, with five characters, each one pursuing fantasies that are just out of reach. Sanchez avoids taking things too seriously, although he does get a little misty-eyed at the end. With quick, witty dialogue and distinct characterization Icarus moves at a quick clip, as this band of beachcombers gets entangled up in one another’s fantasies. The network is doomed to dissolve—there’s no way these people can stand one another’s company for long—but for a moment, they all seem to balance on one another’s shoulders, reaching for the sky. While it’s convenient to finger Primitivo as Icarus at first, at the end the moniker applies to the entire crazy crowd.
In the empty, darkened space—with Benjamin Lawrence’s set cleverly integrated with the structure of the theater itself—the five actors attain a symbiosis in which they are more involved with one another than with the tiny audience. That’s an accomplishment in itself because, with the exception of Miley, the cast is new to the Run of the Mill. As Primitivo, Brown casually imbues his character with the aura of a superstar. The Baltimore School for the Arts junior’s voice gets lost a little given the acoustics, but that strangely adds to the illusion of a person who expects people to strain themselves to hear him. Graybill, meanwhile, plays Mr. Ellis as a rumpled eccentric, but he balances that with a piercing earnestness that fools the audience and the other characters. Chacin lends her stock character a touching, luminous quality: As she stands on her porch picking up guys on the beach, she never quite abandons her dream world. Miley injects this somewhat melancholy scenario with what feels like a limitless supply of energy as she negotiates a delicate balance between a character who is both a control freak and a shy, vulnerable girl. Caran, meanwhile, is excellent as the faceless, morose Beau. Unfortunately, Icarus unmasks him a little too soon, making the play drag on a bit thereafter.
Now back to the cavernous bit: The audience/actor ratio works perfectly here, but Icarus would probably survive with a larger crowd. Run of the Mill is back after an extended hiatus, with a number of new names, but it hasn’t lost its touch. It is still one of the most interesting, adventurous local theater groups—and, apparently, it soon will relocate as the resident group at Theatre Project. But don’t wait till then to see it.
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