How much damage can trauma and isolation do to our minds? Is it possible to stray so far from society you cannot come back? And what if society self-destructs while you’re not there? “Cabin Sam: A Post-Apocalyptic Guide to Making Friends,” a chilling story of survival and trauma, poses these questions beautifully while dipping between lyrically unhinged rants, awkward small talk and inspirational slam poetry with contrasting nightmarish stories of subsistence.
“Cabin Sam” is an original play created by Otis Fuqua ’19, who presented a staged reading directed by Gabe Walker ’19 last weekend. And in doing so, he introduced the world to a story which grabs its audience by their inner darkness and shows them what happens when that darkness is permitted to gain control.
The show is framed around the memoirs of Sam (Sophia Massidda ’20), a mysterious hermit who lives (mostly) alone in the titular cabin after the apocalypse. But humans are, in Sam’s words, social animals. They have created a (supposedly) imaginary “colleague” Radam (Ryan Sands ’19), who manifests as a truly terrifying personification of Sam’s id. The two initially maintain an uneasy rhythm with Radam entertaining Sam with stories and songs shaped mainly by a disturbingly violent “big knife” kill-or-be-killed philosophy constrained by Sam’s commands. Their rhythm, however, is thrown off when Sam receives a message from a colony of survivors working to rebuild and, against Radam’s warnings, summons the recruiter/vetter Seeve (Talia Bornstein ’19) and kicks the show into gear. Seeve is enthusiastically friendly and determined to help Sam regain trust in others so they can join the new society. But as Sam gradually realizes how much they need companionship, Radam gains an increasingly independent character, insisting the world is too cutthroat for friendship to exist. The colony attempts to lure Sam into a trap to kill and eat him and Sam must take decisive, primal action (penetrate or kill) to survive. Sam, instinctively distrustful of others yet starved for affection, is caught in between the two but begins to pull towards their own inner voice with disturbing consequences.
This dynamic, and its underlying emotions, are shown in electrifying detail on the stage. Fuqua’s language, developed with help from the rest of the creative team, is perfectly suited to each character and gripping as all hell. Sam’s musings on how insane they have become, filled metaphors of self-imposed torture and images of acids baths, are disturbingly easy to understand and even, at times, sympathize with. While lucid at least, they can sum up their own situation with a strikingly beautiful lyricism clearly, yet the deterioration they describe is obvious in frequent descents into frantic, semi-nonsensical rants reminiscent of the worst panic attacks when they approach their core problems they cannot find answers for. Massida delivers these monologues impressively, escalating from lucid to panicked seamlessly and then snapping back with Sam’s distinctive disorienting self-awareness.
Sam’s brother in mind, Radam, embraces Sam’s ranting, largely ditching metaphor for rapid and graphic description of violence and horror framed in jarringly comic terms, but occasionally switching on a dime from the Joker into a sad jester who cares about their “jellyfish” Sam. Sands is superb in this role, at once truly terrifying and hilarious. He talks to Sam with just enough earnestness to make it impossible to tell whether he urges violence out of concern for them or a manipulative desire to destroy them.
Outside of this inner world, the dialogue loses much of its poetics. Nervous, Sam speaks in short but skeptical sentences and Seeve dominates, with a spirit reminiscent of a kindergarten teacher crossed with an orientation leader, turning every comment into a compliment towards Sam and insisting on conversation topics which could have come out of “post-apocalypse icebreakers.” Even when describing how Seeve’s parents died, Bornstein keeps the character’s professional smile on and makes the story uncomfortably cheesy.
The smile stays until Sam, torn between their twin impulses, lives up to their increasingly horror-movie-esque inner dialogue and takes drastic action, moving the show towards a dramatic ending which only raises more questions about both the show and ourselves.
“Cabin Sam” is truly one of the most exciting new shows I’ve ever seen. It packages questions about how and why we treat each other the way we do, how much we need social interaction, the effects of trauma, our capability to commit atrocities and more in a compelling story shown to the audience through deeply impressive writing and a perfectly matching performance. The show is certainly not finished. It faces some thematic mismatches stemming from the way it eventually positions Sam as almost unambiguously a villain and Seeve a hero, while offering tantalizing glimpses of more nuanced roles and some confused commentary on the true viability of society. The story of a man torn between distrust of society and a person offering acceptance, but only in a society, set against the backdrop of a society which self-destructed offers an excellent opportunity to question if society should be sustained. And while some moments display this theme, such as when Seeve refuses to entertain questions from Sam about the new colony’s economy, they are rarely reinforced and end up being overshadowed by a position of Radam as a devil, Seeve an angel and Sam’s eventual listening to Radam as a moral “falling.” The world of the show is also hard to grasp, though this is more due to the nature of a staged reading. Given the impressive costumes and set designs created by Haa R’nana Bchiri ’20 and Molly Rocca ’20 respectively, it seems clear the actual world could be easily developed for a full staging of the work.
I hope someone tells me when this show gets a full staging, because I want to be there on opening night. In the meantime, Fuqua, if you read this, I ask that you start a podcast of just monologues from Sam and Radam (preferably performed by Massidda and Sands). They are deliciously disturbing characters and I would love more of them.