Why haven’t we institutionalized the act of getting a divorce? Seems a simple enough question, one with a ready enough answer, if a bit glib: Divorces are fraught with so many emotions we’d rather not be confronted with in public, that the idea of making it a formal thing just seems a bit…gauche. But what if, at the same time that marriage turned from being a business transaction into the ultimate institutional act of love, divorce became an officially sanctioned ending of that love?
This is the question that Holly Arsenault’s Undo asks. The play, which is currently being produced by Annex Theatre, is a look at this alternate reality, a place where the events in a wedding ceremony must be performed in reverse order—from the end of the reception to the removal of the rings–in order to nullify the initial union. This semi-fantastical notion is somewhat nebulous and is fraught with peril–depending on the desired approach–a misstep could result in endless bathos, or a particularly callous and insensitive parade through tender emotions. Arsenault and her director, Erin Kraft, have chosen to thread the needle, deciding to ground the premise in realistic emotions with the occasional foray into dark-themed light comedy. This is not an easy course to have chosen, and the fact that Arsenault and Kraft emerge largely unscathed and victorious is worthy of note. Which isn’t to say that it’s a seamless ride, as both artists provide some nits to pick here and there.
Kraft begins the show with her Rachel (Sydney Andrews) and Joe (Ashton Hyman), her lead characters, standing on stage nearly naked, just as they were before they officially consummated their marriage—an apt place to begin the dissolution. However, this plateau and what immediately follows establishes a delicate and reserved tone that muffles some of the evening’s humor early in the proceedings. Similarly, Arsenault’s episodic script veers into heavy exposition on occasion, in order to add depth to her characters. Take the early revelation regarding Rachel, as an example, which seems to stack the deck against her a little forcefully and heavily.
This last is unfortunate only in the sense that Kraft and Arsenault have otherwise taken care in crafting their characters, especially with the unhappy couple. Joe and Rachel are pretty flawed people without additional garnish; they clearly care for each other, yet they probably should not be together. It’s a familiar relationship archetype: One is a little too controlling and abrasive, the other is a little too pliant and weak-willed, but resolute in making a faulty relationship work. They are easy to take individually, but together…it isn’t comfortable. There isn’t any need to make one more unpleasant than the other for the audience.
That said, Kraft and Arsenault manage to turn these setbacks into strengths as the show progresses. Having Rachel’s revelation happen so early keeps it from being an ungainly surprise later on; while Kraft’s restraint at the beginning of the first act helps in the delivery of some especially fragile moments throughout the rest of the show. Particularly in the second act, as the couple continues to “undo” the signature moments of their wedding day (e.g. the couple’s dance, and the ultimate ceremony itself). The weight of these moments—the unguarded honesty of them—is Undo‘s invaluable currency, the reason to that everything else matters.
Kraft is to be commended for accumulating such a distinguished set of actors, who treat the proceedings all of the gravity such an occasion would require. It gives the evening a lived in quality–enough to convince one that such a ceremony actually exists–and underlines the fact that Arsenault’s various characters could be the centers of their own productions. This is especially true with Marty Mukhailian’s Adine and Mark Waldstein’s Abe; their trajectory of long lost love being reunited and possibly rekindling their spark instills a desire for further exploration beyond the handful of exchanges they are afforded here.
Ultimately, Undo is an evening of greatly fulfilled potential from the parties involved. Kraft gets an opportunity to helm a mainstage production, and displays a sensitivity that’s only been hinted at during various workshops and 14/48 weekends. Undo is also Arsenault’s first full length play, and features a deeper palette of emotions than her previous outings as a playwright during a handful of Quickies, Live Girls Theater’s short play festival series, were able to afford her (compare Undo with 2007’s Teen Love to see the development at play).
The biggest surprise is that this production serves as a reminder of the depth that Annex Theatre is capable of providing, pre-occupied as they have been during recent seasons with providing solid genre and experimental pieces mixed with populist pastiches and a barrage of fluffy shenanigans of variable quality. Here is a production of human and humane scale that resonates deeply, without having to resort to some obligatory amount of quirk.
It really looks good on them.
Through Saturday at 8:00p.m. // Annex Theatre, 1100 East Pike Street // $18 in advance, $20 at the door