Directed by Leah Bonvissuto
Adam Belvo – K-Bus
Isaac Byrne – Hiccup
Michael Mason – Muskie
Adam Laten Willson – Leander
Cole Wimpee – Jet
Reviewed Performance 3/8/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Darkness and sound. This is a play about darkness and sound. In 1973, five coalminers trapped in a collapsed West Virginia mine struggle against the dark, their fears and the growing claustrophobia by using their voices. They sing, they tell stories, they joke and they make sounds, any kind of sounds to alleviate the terror that incidentally builds into the audience. In the tight confines of the Stone Cottage adjacent to WaterTower Theater, the cold, rainy afternoon outside and the dark space inside perfectly came together to add verisimilitude to the drama expertly crafted by the Aztec Economy company.
The five actors, having performed together since 2008 as members of an arts collective, work like a well-oiled machine. They play off each other’s voices with rapid fire delivery, overlapped lines and carefully orchestrated vocal dynamics, rushing words to a crescendo or fading to a slow diminuendo, all punctuated with well- crafted silences and pauses. The silence between notes and words can often be as powerful as the sound itself, and both sound and silence contribute as we begin to feel at one with these men, soon believing we are as trapped as they in the horror of a collapsed mine.
As the play progresses, we hear stories, learn about relationships, and begin to see (hear?) these men as individuals. Beginning in total darkness and then illuminated only by the light from their headlamps, the actors create a totally believable environment. Each scene is separated by moments of blackness and always, always, the sound of pounding, breathing and strange emanations from the enveloping lack of light.
There’s talk of Brylcreem and singing of the pomade’s familiar jingle – at least familiar to those in the audience old enough to remember. They mention a case the Bible should be in that holds dynamite, tell ghost stories and talk of Lazarus. There are monologues in the darkness, some in rhyme. Together the men sing country-western songs and in a long extended moment, two of the men are threatened by a third wielding a pipe in a horrifying game that is repeated later as a game of redemption and hope.
Almost lyrical at times, this production is gripping from the opening seconds, and the performers know well that you need to “grab ahold and keep ahold” of your audience as playwright Wimpee says in an interview. Knowing the real threat can be the psychological stuff that comes to the fore under stress, the physical danger of being trapped is less daunting then the secrets and fears that emerge from the inner darkness of the men’s minds. Each performer gets a chance to “shine” in that darkness as they tell their character’s own story and reveal aspects of each.
While the Appalachian dialects and pace may take a moment to get used to, the confined space forces you to be part of the story. Eventually you just let the experience wash over you and carry you along. The story is there to be found in the darkness and the sound.
BUTCHER HOLLER HERE WE COME