The text of “Rivkala’s Ring,” Spalding Gray’s monologue adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Witch,” reads more like a narrative than a piece of theatre. Indeed, in her director’s note, Caley Chase ’16 acknowledges that part of the rehearsal process was “explor[ing] what makes this story a play.” The production I saw last Saturday night as part of the 2016 Senior Thesis Festival was not only deeply theatrical, but delightfully so. Chase made two simple yet wildly inventive choices that transformed a strange and intriguing story into a riveting and satisfying exploration.
Upon entering the Laurie Theater, I am met with a most unexpected sight: a ball pit. The rectangular corral contained numerous multicolored balls and three turquoise chairs. The visual appeal is coupled with a tactile one; I want to see someone interact with that pit. The person sitting next to me and I hypothesize about the uses and extensions of the pit, inventing and laughing, and filled with a certain wonder. Already, in this choice of a setting, Chase has engaged and excited me. I am invested in the play before it begins.
The house lights dim and three men enter, similar yet distinct in appearance. They wear no shoes. They enter the pit and begin to interact with it, throwing balls in the air and at each other. Just as I begin to wonder what’s next, there is a sudden blackout, and when the lights come up a beat later, all three are sitting squarely in their chairs, facing the audience. The effect is both humorous and startling. This sets the tone for the rest of the piece as moments of hilarity mingle with the grotesque and the melancholy.
The ball pit becomes the home of the action of the play; it acts as the source of location and props. The chairs are rearranged continually, minute set changes that maintain a fast-paced flow, and add dynamic to a seemingly stagnant stage. This vibrancy is realized further as balls escape their pit through the sometimes intentional, sometimes random action of the actors. Props are unearthed from the pit, toy versions of the images in the script. While the actors clearly had a sense of where each item hid, they had to search to extract their prop, affirming the sense of the play, and of life, as an educated randomness. This choice capitalized on the thrill of live theatre: a dual enjoyment of the story and of living bodies acting in real-time. Watching an actor struggle to find his prop in time for his line, or else reach down and pluck it up as if it had been delivered it to his hand, evokes a deep excitement. The pit also had thematic tie-ins to the text: boundaries, separations, “ins” and “outs,” the aforementioned randomness, as well as an abstracted image of life and death. Yet although I can elicit much thematic and symbolic meaning from it, its great effectiveness is not in the abstract, but in its usage. It works. It creates great visual and physical opportunity for the second of Chase’s vital directorial choices: her cast.
The choice to share this monologue text among three bodies and voices heightens it and I believe is the source of my emotional attachment to the piece. The interplay between Dan Souza ’19, Raphael Stigliano ’18 and Zach Marlin ’16 is beautiful to witness. Each forms a distinct character, a specific delivery, and while they react to each other, it is not reactionary. That is, rather than setting it up as three different aspects of the same person—which tends to be a tired theatrical device—we see the same narrative embodied by three different actors. Each character is full within himself, because each actor is full within himself. Their difference lies not in a conceptual construct, but in the humanity, the voice and body, of these remarkable actors. Souza is bold and fearful, apologetic and hoping. Stigliano is smooth and intent, playful and powerful. Marlin is off-beat and sweet, nebbishy and excitable. Each is alone and in relation. Therefore, we bear witness to the connection and the disconnect simultaneously, hold both together in a way that is complex but feels true.
This short, odd, fascinating, nihilistic, goofy, beautiful production offered a deeply complex simplicity, a sense of wonder and dread, a love and hatred of the human condition, a chance to connect and feel distant. I thank the cast and crew for a piece of theatre that has become part of my experience of the world—not a large part, not central or pivotal, just another thread in the fabric. And isn’t that the point?