The setup: For Curtains' first visit to Brelby Theatre Company since they finally moved into their leased and rehabbed space in historic Glendale, the troupe presents a show in the Brelby Studio Series, in which unfamiliar plays receive modest productions. Telemachus, Darling is a one-act that, despite featuring a lot of narration and very little dialogue, constitutes an affecting, spontaneous live stage experience.
Brelby posted an interview with Columbia grad and New York off-off-Broadway/Fringe-type playwright Patrick Barrett in which Barrett describes his background and influences and relates how some of the ideas for Telemachus' tone and structure came to him. It's fair to say there's a whiff of postmodernism in the script, which plays more like a dryly elegant short story (or two parallel stories) than the narration of action but is layered and interspersed with tense, wordless domestic scenes, exhilarating high-romantic fantasy, and pencil sketches that beg for the intervention of a children's art therapist.
The execution: Darling, as he was called by his surname at boarding school, is an 8-year-old English boy whose father is missing after a World War I sea battle. He struggles with his loss and responsibilities and finds comfort and distraction in books, especially an English-language version of The Odyssey, in which he discovers Telemachus, the son of missing Odysseus, as a character he can relate to.
Niki DeShazo, a young woman who portrays Darling with energetic subtlety and respect, is on stage for almost every moment of the approximately hour-long performance, and though she says almost nothing aloud, it's an admirable feat of endurance made more impressive by DeShazo's focus and ease. Most of the story is narrated by Melody Martyn, a warm, graceful performer who sounds as though she might be a bona fide British woman. Her voice is an excellent match for Barrett's clever, image-heavy prose.
In several short scenes, we also see Telemachus and his mother, Penelope, on the shore near their lands in Ithaca. Like Darling and his mother, their individual experiences of pain and betrayal keep each from opening their heart to the person they'd most like to help and reassure.
This sounds as though it could be dreary, but most of it is quite entertaining. Restrained, almost monochrome costuming gives the production a coherence that draws attention, and Barrett's descriptions of the logical distortions a child's brain applies to reality are both lifelike and amusing. When Martyn leaves off speaking for intense action (often one of the boys practicing weaponry) or a short burst of dialogue, it's almost as if we've encountered a scene from a dream that's too powerful to lend itself to straightforward language -- pure emotion that can't be filtered through a second mind.
Only one part of the show really jars: a prerecorded description of Lt. Darling's engagement with the German navy. Everything becomes lecture-hall-like and appetizing as dust. I couldn't even listen to it and simply zoned out. That might be the point, but I was left unsure why it's at the point in the play where it is and what it's for, and in this beautifully controlled and clear presentation, that's a noticeable anomaly.
An element that does bind everything together despite the potential to fail horribly is an uncredited soundtrack that underlies Martyn's narration at just the right volume, ranging through an assortment of classical and easy-listening numbers and including surprising string-quartetty renditions of rock and pop favorites. I love seeing deliberate choices that are not what one might expect but turn out to be just what's needed.
As Darling waits for his father (and secretly ponders when to stop waiting), he draws and draws, and thanks to projections upstage, we can see the exploding ships, fortified redoubts, ferocious creatures, and so forth for ourselves. They populate his too-quiet home and too-isolated imagination, and they make the theatrical experience that much richer, too, by engaging us visually and symbolically.
The projector, though, leads to a persistent annoyance about the venue -- the light shines directly into the eyes of several audience members, unless they duck. You might want to experiment with finding a seat from which that lamp, as well as some of the stage lighting suspended beneath the low ceiling, doesn't bother you. The lights also flicker somewhat and are actually uncomfortably warm in parts of the theater, as it's super-intimate.
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It's almost palpable how earnest everyone at Brelby is and how quasi-sacred their space is. Everyone's work is just this side of a line beyond which it would be so professional that I'd stop thinking about what solid work it is and just give myself over to the experience. And there's no shame in being at that spot.
The verdict: The small Labor Day weekend audience chatted before Telemachus, Darling began and found that most of us were relentless, Valleywide theater-goers who have repeatedly attended Brelby shows because we find so many delightful moments in them. It's thought-provoking, yet feel-good theater. This show is another chance to encounter a writer, director, and actors you haven't seen a lot of before and get excited about seeing them again.
Telemachus, Darling continues through Saturday, September 7, at 6835 North 58th Avenue in Glendale. Call 623-282-2781 for tickets, $10, or order here.