|Julia McNeal & Caleb Cabrera|
“Everything I thought was solid is un-solid.
What’s the root of this unraveling?
Events, dear Boy, events.”
In small clumps of chatting friends, they gather around the coffee and tea station (complete with its Costco-size Coffee-mate), music in hand and with of course women far outnumbering men, as is usually the case for most community choirs. After a few minutes, they stand in front of the piano and begin to lift their dozen voices in gorgeous, a cappella waves of light, happy harmonies that twist and turn in the air all around us. And unlike the choir on that night when The Boy arrived unannounced but still welcomed by its director, Claire, these members of the Gallimaufry Chamber Chorus will all go home tonight; for they are on the Shotgun Players stage as a witnessing chorus of The Events that playwright David Greig and director Susannah Martin have planned for them and us.
While inspired by the horrific massacre at Norway’s Workers Youth League summer camp on July 22, 2011, The Events by David Greig cannot help but remind an American audience of the hate crime and mass shooting on the evening of July 17, 2015 at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church when a 21-year-old white supremacist killed nine. We meet one survivor of a similar but fictional attack on a choir of mostly immigrants – of people who look different from the boy who will gun them down. As the director of that ill-fated choir, she is now on a mission not to understand what happened to her (“I know what happened to me”), but to “understand what happened to him.” And as she tries to piece together a puzzle that does not seem it wants to be or even can be solved, she once again shows up each week to direct a new set of aspiring singers from the community, as she is doing tonight in front of us.
As Claire, Julia McNeal exudes palpable, bottled-up intensity and feeling even in her many quiet moments where she is clearly just trying to think through the mystery she hopes to solve. Her face is a map of strain from those events we will not witness; but, through her, we so come to understand and to some extent, experience – events like when the perpetrator found her and one older choir member huddled in a small room and demanded to know who should get his one, final bullet. But we see also hints of the joy Claire once felt in the occasional smiles that brighten Ms. McNeil’s entire being, and we know that here is a woman who has a light inside her she is just looking to reignite by knowing why ... Why did this boy do that awful act?
|Julia McNeal and a Community Chorus|
“Is he nuts, or is he evil?” That is the question Claire keeps asking everyone who might have a clue to the answer. “Is it possible he’s insane ... If he’s insane, then it’s not his fault.” Her frustration is reflected in the choir as she directs them in nonsensical syllables that become a sung mantra of “I am out of control, there’s no where to go now.” And yet her determination to plunge ahead in her probing is also reflected in an emotional, beautiful rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing” that she leads, leaving her and many of us in the audience with tears welling.
But her almost manic insistence of “If I can find the cause, I can lay it to rest” leads her exasperated life partner, Katrina, to ask, “What if shit just fucking happens?” and her choir that has been asked to stomp and chant in a circle with a local shaman (from Fairfield, no less) to walk out suggesting in their own exhaustion, “Maybe forgetting is best.”
|Julia McNeal & Caleb Cabrera|
Through it all, Julia McNeal is masterful as she leads her Claire through a maze of interviews, self-explorations, and moments of total, emotional breakdown. Equally stunning in his performance is The Boy who plays everyone from Katrina to Claire’s psychologist, a right-wing politician, The Boy’s father, and his supposed best friend. And among many other roles, Caleb Cabrera of course also embodies the young shooter and murderer himself. Often in a matter of seconds, he switches persona; but in voice and overall looks, he is always The Boy.
Director Susannah Martin never lets us forget that the assailant is just a rather handsome, solemn-faced guy who wears an everyday hoodie and has such sad, deep eyes that it is obvious there is a traumatic story there we have yet to hear. As The Boy, Caleb Cabrera is eerily steady, peering, and present – even when off to the side or in some temporary role that calls him to say lines of others who are interacting with Claire as she tries to figure out who He is, that Boy behind the face of the other role Mr. Cabrera is now portraying.
The Greek-like Chorus rises to interact and respond to The Boy, too, in a manner to raise one’s neck hairs in a shuddering moment of chill. Standing on top of the piano, The Boy – now without shirt in an aboriginal form of himself – leads them in singing, “If I am going to make my mark on this world, I have to do it now.” And we as audience members are sitting there, we begin to wander through our own growing list of questions about what does motivate young, beautiful boys like this one to walk into a church, a gay nightclub, a Parisian arena, a Turkish plaza, or one of dozens of other to-that-moment peaceful places and suddenly mow down innocent victims?
Beyond the script, the two actors, the director, and the choir (with music coordinated by Lisa Quoresimo), the power of The Events is further enhanced by extraordinary sound design by Jake Rodriguez. Much of the urgency and tension that rarely dissipates during the ninety-minute production is due to the background, subtle-but-felt music beats, echoing clock ticks, or unsettling heartbeats that we are often vaguely aware of as they gently throb even inside us. The lighting of Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky also adds its own moments of drama, especially in the final seconds when light makes a lasting statement. Angrette McCloskey’s set is effectively any and every community center or church multi-purpose room where community members might gather on a weeknight to sing.
The genius of David Greig particularly shines through in his instruction to a company like Shotgun Players to use a different community choir each night of the play’s performance. For Shotgun, that means lining up almost 25 choirs and a total of 350 singers. For the Shotgun audience, it means we get to understand the power of music to tell a story and to heal wounds as well the power of watching others – not unlike ourselves -- react and comment through their music and in real time to The Events unfolding in front of us all.
The sum total is an evening none of us – choir members or theatre’s patrons – is like soon to forget, especially when the next, sadly inevitable headline screams of another boy, another atrocity.
Rating: 5 E
The Events continues through June 4, 2017 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/ or by calling 510-841-6500.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli