Life is fragile.Â It’s a thought that can seem like a cliché until an event or series of events occurs in your life to bring you unwillingly face to face with that eternal truth.
That is what lies at the heart of Peter Gil-Sheridan’s What May Fall at Theatre of NOTE.Â Based on his own real-life experience, the play follows a group of people who witness, or are related to those who witness, a catastrophic event in Minneapolis.Â A window washer falls from the IDS tower, the city’s tallest building, and the communal experience of observing this event changes the witnesses’ lives forever — some for the better, some not.
I was drawn to the play, as I personally struggle with staying in touch with that fragility of life.Â In a modern world that constantly tells you that you must get to the next goal, obtain more things to be happy, get to the next achievement to have an identity, it’s so easy to fly past the preciousness of the present.
Life must be lived.Â And it must be contemplated.Â But can you do both at once?Â How can you strive to move forward, but stay in awareness that where you are right now may be the best place you’ll ever be?Â Or the last?Â These are the questions that the play asks, and I found the balance between the simplicity of the question and the complexity of its undertones arresting.
The setting of the play also interests me in how it interacts with the essential action of the play.Â Minneapolis is, of course, an urban setting, and many of the people who witness the event don’t know the victim, but are nonetheless profoundly changed by viewing the death of a stranger.Â The play is talking about how we, in contemporary urban culture, can feel so isolated, so alone, so cut off from any sense of community — but in a flash, can be brought so intimately together by a shared experience of tragedy.
The Newtown shootings occurred during our rehearsal period, and the cast talked about the similarity in seeing something occur so far away from your own world, and yet how the “witnessing” of such a thing, albeit through technology and distance, can change us.Â In our world today, we may not all be experiencing a personal, connected sense of community, but we become a community very quickly by these mass events.
Peter, the author, talked to me at length about the daily experience of walking through an ocean of unknown, unidentified faces when you live in a city, and how those identities can come into a clear, vivid, personal specificity when tragedy strikes. The stranger becomes an individual in a flash.
To illustrate that, the script called for mask work, which I was very excited about. Cristina Bercovitz, a master puppeteer, designed the masks, which are very close to neutral — yet uniquely individual to each character in the play.Â As the people in the story deal with the tenuous nature of their own existence, they must face whatever is in their lives that they must let go of, confront, or embrace to become themselves more fully. The mask work is used to underscore the interplay between collective and individual, as well as to delineate the progression between being stuck to becoming more alive, more vividly human.
I was excited by the play’s mixture of theatrical styles.Â Many of the scenes are grounded in realism, and yet the play leaves the genre very quickly and touches upon both symbolic theater and expressionism.Â The mask work, combined with sections of the play that use poetry and symbolic imagery, called for an approach that would combine a movement-based method of staging in conjunction with a complex weave of design and acting as unifying elements.Â The cast of actors has been amazing. The piece mixes genres, requiring a physical commitment to exploring movement, to working with masks, on a rake. It’s a huge undertaking, and they have done a inspiring job.
I’ve also been so lucky to have a marvelous design team.Â Ellen Lenbergs beautifully created a space that articulates the tension between isolation and collective, arctic and urban.Â Â John Garofalo’s lighting has been able to transform this abstract set into a myriad of settings with unique and beautiful tones.Â Jonathan Snipes wrote an original score that is both mournful and uplifting in a single stroke, which, to me, is the essence of being right inside the experience of the fragility of life.Â It’s a sad and simple awareness, yet speaks to the very core of what makes life so very beautiful and complex.
What May Fall, Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Hollywood.Â 90028. Opens tonight. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. No performance Feb. 24. Through March 23. Tickets: $25. www.theatreofnote.com 323-856-8611.
***All What May Fall production photos by Darrett Sanders.
Mary Jo DuPrey is a member of the UCLA faculty for the Ray Bolger Musical Theater Program. In 2008, she received her MFA in directing from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television where she directed MGM: My Visits with My Grandmother Marta, the workshop production of In the Company of Jane Doe, and an original musical version of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.Â As a faculty member, she directed Big Love for the UCLA graduate program in acting and Who is Selma Teller? for UCLA’s playwrights’ festival.Â She re-staged a reading of In the Company of Jane Doe for Blank Theatre’s Living Room Series, then mounted a full production of it for Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble. She also directed the world premiere of Arroz Con Pollo by Edward Hernandez at the Complex and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Gallimaufry Productions. She’s a cum laude graduate of Vassar College, and a recipient of the NYU professional certification in filmmaking.