A loaf of bread. A canvas. A tea ritual. A letter. These things have become treasured, precious commodities in a world gone mad. We find ourselves in a space, perhaps a theatre, a seemingly underground bunker where a group of artists gather to rehearse. They joke, they create, they sometimes act out scenarios of a normal life. There are secret knocks on a locked, iron door where they come in from what appears to be a harsh, cold, outside world where danger lurks. They are living in a “dark time”. But once they enter their space, there is peace, they feel safe with each other as they feed off of each other’s spirits, humor and humanity.
With her play, Esprit de Corps, Sally Smythe creates a dystopian world where individuals, in this case, artists, have found a secret place to gather and remember their shared humanity. She does this with an almost Beckett-like minimalism, where only the most necessary words are used, almost as if language itself is as precious as a loaf of bread. I got the sense that the people spoke to each other out of their need to connect, otherwise conserving their energy for their performance and their survival. They are putting a performance together, but who is their audience?
The core group of actors work beautifully together to create this world, so much so that I became disoriented halfway in, losing a sense of time and place. Are we in the past or future and where are we exactly? There is no way to tell, which ends up giving it a sense of universal truth. Smythe plays a whimsical, artistic den mother, Hazel, who seems to be the one the others look to for her strength and wisdom. She has a natural, maternal quality that comes through but also brings an innocence and eternal optimism to Hazel that is incredibly engaging. Alexa Yeames is Lilly, a protégé of Hazel; she is a young, passionate artist and Yeames is full of wide-eyed yearning as she brings her new love, Sumir, into the group. The audience relates to Sumir as the newcomer trying to learn and gain their trust. Areg Barsegian is a dashing Sumir, instilling him with a noble sense of duty and integrity. Shayne Anderson is Caleb, Lilly’s father who is wary of Sumir. Anderson strikes an imposing figure but, with his bowler hat, he is also playful and mischievous. Nathan Pierce’s Nick seems to be the steady stage manager of the proceedings and Pierce plays him with dignity and humor. Clay Wilcox as Hazel’s partner in crime and biggest supporter, Harry, although wistful and full of melancholy nostalgia is also the most hopeful. Melissa R. Randel has gorgeous physicality and is heartbreaking as a mother searching for a lost son.
Even though things looks bleak for our intrepid troupe of actors, Sydney Walsh’s direction focuses the attention on the tender moments of connection, the sanctity of a ritual, the pleasure of sharing a laugh and the strength of the human spirit. They create as if their lives depend upon it. I was stunned by how powerful hope could look in such a world and was reminded of the Buddhist value that compares a lotus flower growing and blossoming above a muddy water surface and humans rising above our defilements and sufferings. The characters in Esprit de Corps are not merely surviving, but thriving in the only way they know how; by continuing to connect through artistic expression.
Lighting design by Leigh Allen, props by John Burton and scenic design by Pete Hickok all work in synergy to create a secret and sacred space while somehow bringing a desolate outside world to life as well. Sound design by Jesse Mandapat constructs a vivid experience that takes us all on a journey with the characters.
Esprit de Corps is now playing at South Pasadena Theatre Workshop Thursday-Sunday through July 9. No performance Friday June 23. Check the website for all showtimes and to purchase tickets. Located at 1507 El Centro in South Pasadena. Convenient parking in front of and across from the theater. Showtimes Thursdays and Fridays 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 5pm.
Tickets $20, Students $15 (626) 644-3654 http://southpasadenatheatreworkshop.com/
Photos courtesy of South Pasadena Theatre Workshop