TDPS Holds a Funhouse Mirror Up to Marriage in '70 Scenes of Halloween'

 Photo: Natalia Perez

Photo: Natalia Perez

The set of TDPS’s 70 Scenes of Halloween is really something. I was immediately struck by the intimacy of the space; Zellerbach Playhouse has been transformed into a familiar living room, one that envelops us completely. “I feel like I’ve been in this living room before,” an audience member leans over to tell me before the show.

This living room is our constant throughout the absurdist, surrealist, and sometimes horrific vignettes of 70 Scenes of Halloween, a stubbornly indecipherable but inevitably fascinating piece of theater. As reality slips in and out and our characters undergo innumerable permutations, that olive green living room stays the same.

70 Scenes is deeply interesting and truly original on a conceptual level. Playwright Jeffrey M Jones has written 70 disparate scenes (numbered 1 through 70) about wife and husband Joan and Jeff and some supernatural guests on a spooky Halloween night. But Jones is clear that these are “interchangeable scenes,” and leaves it to the director to order them however he chooses. Director Christopher Herold confidently takes on that challenge. Throughout the show, scenes jump from 1 to 35 to 17, blackouts wedged between them. In his ability to order sequences, Herold wields enormous control over the essence of the production.

One of Herold’s best directorial decisions is to quadruple-cast Joan and Jeff; there are four Joans and four Jeffs, paired and re-paired for each scene. With sixteen possible spousal combinations, Herold gives each actor the opportunity to collide and mix and bounce off one another. It’s truly exciting to see what a new scene partner will bring out in a performer, and each new combination is like a little rebirth.

Luckily, all eight actors are superb, holding the weight of the material on their backs like Atlas. Each has their own strength — Komi Gbeblewou, for example, has truly mastered the art of the explosive outburst, and Verity Pinter brings a gentle naturalism to each of Joan’s iterations. A show like 70 Scenes requires that kind of diverse array of strengths, since it (fairly successfully) attempts to capture the full spectrum of every possible human emotion.

Fundamentally, 70 Scenes is absurd. It’s formally absurd, in that it is an absurdist work, but it’s also just flat out bizarre. It delights in vexing you, in cutting to blackout right when we’re about to get somewhere, in presenting nonsense as if it were fact. There’s something innately freeing about that, about manipulating and distorting reality to your will. Your brain will be doing backflips trying to find meaning and chronology and continuity and theme; our minds love a good pattern. So Jones denies us that outright, and if we accept it form the get go, it makes for a better viewing experience.

In capturing the entire range of human emotion, 70 Scenes also captures a lot of different genres, vacillating between comedy and melodrama and horror and whatever-else so jarringly that you’ll likely get whiplash. It’s a fun whiplash at first, an exciting kind that is proof you’re on an adventure. But by the time the first hour has passed and you still haven’t gotten a firm hold on the show, you may start to get a little sore.

Like any more avant-garde piece of theater, there are aspects of 70 Scenes that don’t work. It’s about half an hour too long, and a sizeable chunk of the seventy scenes not only feel extraneous but actively take away from the good stuff. The 70 of the title locks directors in to honor the full number of scenes, but shaving off a good 20 of the weaker ones would do the show wonders. Overall, the show sometimes feels uneven and disjointed, almost exclusively as a product of its script and structural premise.

But I also want to give sincere recognition to the many parts — and there are many — of this production that do work. 70 Scenes is the story of a couple losing their minds and falling apart; their decline is aggressively nonlinear. With some of the weirder, less relevant scenes stripped away, the beating heart of the play — the dissolution of a marriage — is strong and authentic and performed expertly by the cast.

The seventy scenes of 70 Scenes give us a lot of material to parse, and with it, many ideas and motifs and questions to consider. It’s packed with suspicious packages and dull knives and a lifetime’s worth of blood-curdling screams. Latent frustrations bubble to the surface of Joan and Jeff’s marriage as if it were a witch’s cauldron. Most frequently recurring are the distinctly human sins of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Throughout the play, Joan and Jeff have trouble hearing one another, interrupt one another, or misinterpret the other’s words. This failure in communication erodes their relationship from the inside out, making the nonlinear storytelling of the play more sensical; you never know the state in which you’ll find Joan and Jeff.

 Photo: Natalia Perez

Photo: Natalia Perez

There is also a fascinating juxtaposition of the mundanity of everyday life with horrific imagery, from ghosts to werewolves to headless chickens. Here, suburban and matrimonial anxieties are dramatized and exaggerated, aptly externalized as the stuff of nightmares. 70 Scenes often manages to be genuinely frightening, in part because it is so unpredictable.

The horror sequences are downright Lynchian (a term, I just this second learned, was just added to the Oxford English Dictionary). The horror infused with the mundane, the surrealist quality of the interactions, the jarring flashes of color and sound, the terrifying figures that lurk outside the windows, the nightmarish flashes that interject between subdued domestic moments, and those masks — they all feel like pages out of Lynch’s book. Not in imitation, of course, but in loving homage. It all still feels completely new and original.

The production design — from the sound to the lighting to the set — is nothing short of astounding. Much of the horror that we can’t see, we hear, thanks to Ian D. Thomas. Jack Carpenter does a phenomenal job of using lighting to set the disparate moods of each of the seventy new scenes; often times, the slightest shifts in lighting make the biggest difference. The more dramatic ones — the stage suddenly bathed in red, the white reflected static of the television — further immerse you into the production, and create a stunning aesthetic experience.

And then, of course, there is Alexandra Grabow’s incredible set design. Grabow is only an undergraduate student and, although TDPS usually enlists professionals to oversee set design, Grabow was invited to bring her skills to 70 Scenes. She spent most of her summer break designing this set, bringing it from sketch to model to stage. She tells me that, when it comes to models, she’s “very perfectionist.”

It was a unique challenge. Jones’ script, she says, is very specific about the set’s design. “The set has to be fluid in terms of entrances and exits — four entrances and exits within the set, stairs, an entry way to the front door, a walkway into the kitchen, a closet door,” she told me on a crisp night at Caffe Strada. “Lots of pieces have to come together and be fluid.”

Her role also extends far beyond just designing the set. Grabow prefers to be more hands on than that. “Traditionally,” she says, “the designer gives the model to the scenic shop that builds it, and then steps away. Uniquely enough, I also work in the scenic shop as a carpenter and painter, so i get to be a designer and a worker in the shop at the same time.

“I love being hands-on… It’s so fun to see your set come to life and be able to say ‘I painted that wall, I didn’t just design; I was 100% with the creative process.”

Everything about 70 Scenes is nonsensical, from its characters to its structure to its set. “What made sense for a real house wasn’t going to work for the show,” Grabow says. “Jones was very specific — it’s set in a living room and there’s two little lounge chairs… So we had to make it look like a house, but it won’t be shaped like a normal house.”

Obviously, the tight space of Zellerbach presents its own challenges. “It’s really hard fitting a full-size house in the smaller space, but at the same time… it’s been really rewarding because the audience is going to be right there on the set and can see all the details.”

By the show’s end, the set feels as familiar as your own home.

 Photo: Natalia Perez

Photo: Natalia Perez

The cast of 70 Scenes is fully uninhibited, with each performer giving themselves fully to the physical demands of the show. If you can get past the initial skepticism induced by seeing folks so young inhabiting a supposedly stagnating middle-age marriage and focus entirely on the actors’ performances, their work is of an immensely high caliber. It is difficult to identify a single stand-out, as each actor has their own signature strengths and each brings a fascinating spin to their version of Joan or Jeff. And wisely, Herold gives each a chance to show off their unique talents: he gives Lauren Richardson opportunities to be entrancingly stoic, gives Madeline Yagle ample chance to be animated and loose, gives Komi Gbeblewou lots of time to just lose it, etc. The play also demands demanding physical performances from every performer, something every single one pulls off expertly.

I found the play’s ending to be a bit counterintuitive: a darkly heartwarming riff about Dairy Queen followed by the sweet, upbeat pop song “broken” (“I like that you’re broken / broken like me”). When the thesis of this play, if there is one, often comes across as “marriage is hell” (something Jeff articulates as he tells a witchy version of Joan “Good maid, I know thee well, for thou art the Devil and I am in Hell”), a satisfying ode to sticking together and getting the DQ in the face of it all feels a bit unsatisfying.

More than anything, after watching 70 Scenes of Halloween, I am now more than ever in absolute awe of the expansiveness of the human imagination. Like Athena, 70 Scenes has sprung from the heads of Jones and Herold and this team of actors and designers, a fully-formed vision of their own creation. It’s astounding, really, the way the mind can manipulate our reality to construct a new, unprecedented one. Artistic visions don’t always resonate, and they don’t always have to. Just the fact that this weird and wacky play exists is a testament to human invention. And I fully applaud TDPS for confidently taking the risk that is 70 Scenes; it’s ambitious for sure, but the team behind it is well-equipped, immensely talented, and artistically daring. So really, this production is not only a testament to the human imagination, but also to the artistry of TDPS itself.

Get tickets for 70 Scenes of Halloween today:
October 11-14, 2018 | Zellerbach Playhouse | tdps.berkeley.edu

 Photo: Natalia Perez

Photo: Natalia Perez

TheaterSophia Stewart