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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has recently made it a tradition to take a multi-disciplinary approach to the celebration of major historical milestones. This past academic year (2014-15) has looked back 100 years to the anniversary of the start of World War I, also (pre-World War II) referred to as "The Great War," or, quite absurdly, as "the war to end all wars." It is now PlayMakers Repertory Company's turn as they present Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding, a dreamlike, time-traveling story that is set in 1920 but has World War I as its central character.
The concept isn’t all that unusual or original. Plays, movies, and operas abound with plots involving characters speaking with lovers, family, or friends that have “crossed over.” The intersection of death, dreams, and reality is swollen with dramatic possibilities. Massicotte's play and PlayMakers' production combine for a palpable, ethereal experience that deliciously blurs any clear-cut borders and almost makes you think, "Well, why not?"
The curtain is open from the start. Although physically set in a farm somewhere in Canada, the set is a bit reminiscent of some I have seen for Oklahoma. On the right is a section of growth that looks like a combination of sea oats and cornstalks. On the left is a sturdily-built wooden fence and gate, which is prominently used, figuratively and actually, as a horse, There is a wide open sky off in the distance, beautifully used for lighting and weather effects by lighting designer Jeff Adelberg. There are seven or eight sandbags cleverly used for several different purposes, an umbrella, an actor, an actress, and that's about it. For ninety uninterrupted minutes we are transported to a magical realm, most of which resonates strongly with present day reality.
Just so there is no confusion of the play being nearly over when someone suddenly realizes that "Oh, that's what's going on," the play starts out when Charlie (Myles Bullock) comes out to explain that despite the storyline taking place during the War, it is 1920, it is all a dream and that "…it begins at the end and ends at the beginning." Mary (Carey Cox) emerges to further clarify the time tripping aspect and explains that it is a sunny Saturday morning in 1920, the day of her wedding. What ensues is a combination of a sweet and playful love story, the corruption of young men's (sorry, only guys then) minds into believing the fiction of the nobility of war, the horror of battle, loved ones' reactions to loss, and even allusions to iconic British poetry.
Mary, a British transplant to the "colonists" Canada, meets Charlie, a handsome young farmer and horseman. They proceed to his barn while a ferocious storm attacks the countryside, a premonition of the explosions of war. Playful flirting presages their passionate, but brief and limited love affair. The ride home on the swinging fence "horse" is a highly-charged erotic moment. There are the usual talks about family, and even a recurring theme that Mary’s mother would dislike Charlie. There is even one funny joke in an otherwise very serious and mostly somber play when they passionately embrace while Charlie is holding an unopened umbrella: suddenly it flies open, proud and erect. Later, that same prop doubles as a rifle. Sex = death?
Then comes the meat of the structure of this "what is real?" fantasy: Charlie is on the front with his commander Sergeant Flowerdew ("Flowers"). As if to share his experiences at war, Mary takes on the persona of Flowers, slightly lowering her voice and serving as confidante and conscience as well as Charlie's commanding officer. Charlie refers to Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" as a buttress for his belief in fighting and his robotic assertion that we "must all do our part." Mary answers with "The Lady of Shalott," another Tennyson poem, this one describing the waiting at home for her lover off at war.
As is clearly foreshadowed, Charlie, and much of his cavalry, is killed in an especially horrific battle that is depicted quite realistically with minimal props. Prior to that, Flowers is mortally wounded and Charlie gets to comfort him, who appears as Mary. The layers of meaning and interpretation remain with the viewer, but its poignancy is unmistakable. The final meeting (in dream, apparition, deep imagery?) is two years after the war, the night before Mary’s wedding. It is quite a tearjerker, and makes you want to hit replay.
Both leads have a tremendously difficult part not just because they are the only two actors, but they must convincingly lead the audience through a maze of differing levels of dream, reality, and everything in between. This was opening night in front of a sold-out house and it seemed as if both Bullock and Cox were still a bit preoccupied with the mechanics of their performance. Although without any discernible technical glitches, much of the performance conveyed an "I am acting" atmosphere which will very likely improve with more performances. Big applause goes out to sound designer Robert Dagit whose marvelous work ranged from bombastic bombs to subtle sounds of nature. Directed by Cody Nickell, Mary's Wedding puts you right into that moment we all experience on the cusp of waking after a dream that one has trouble characterizing. When a play and a production can bring that universal ephemeral state to life, there are few things better.
Mary's Wedding continues through Sunday, May 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.