Whales & Souls at the Playhouse

By on 26 October, 2017 in Art, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

It was freezing cold. We’d been urged to wear coats and bring blankets, but still we found ourselves sitting outside in the courtyard of the Cloverdale Playhouse blowing into our hands to keep warm. It was a dress rehearsal for Chris Roe’s one man show, Whales & Souls, which is showing for only an extremely limited time as part of the new Playhouse Underground series. It’s not actually underground, y’all. But October has made its presence felt. And did we mention that it was cold?

The show is “underground” in the sense of artistic integrity. It has an independent spirit and is a product of bravery and performative virtuosity. Roe brings us a challenging show that takes the audience to a wide variety of emotional places, while telling us a story with symbolism and some moral heft.

At its base, Whales & Souls is a one-person performance with a boss sound system and an evocative curtain serving as backdrop. Roe uses a single chair and a bucket as a prop, although the power of technology allows him to project a series of artistic backdrops to create a variety of settings within a small lakeside village.

But narratively, it is more than that. The show conjures a series of characters enmeshed in a complex story of vanity, desire, and their subsequent complications. It offers the viewer a chance to experience extreme emotions couched in the guide of simple, but developed characters. Gently, it invites spectators into a world where there’s little expressive nuance and even less forbearance.

Although it’s billed as “an adult fable,” the characters are relatable. They’re dealing with struggle against social constraints and the looming concerns of a changing world. Even though this is a story with a fantastic monster (and a witch) in it, the people could be our neighbors. In fact, one of our neighbors in real life just badly injured his hand, and that’s a major plot point in the show.

Roe’s got a way with characterization that pulls you along, even if you harbor some skepticism about the overall narrative. He understands the nuances of physical performance and eye contact, even if some bits of script require the additional animation. He knows instinctively what will make you like or hate a character and is able to tap into those gestures and tones accordingly — a hand through the hair here, a bit of choreography there.

At a time when the world can feel unhinged, Roe has brought to the playhouse a unique but ancient way of telling stories. This isn’t something streamed onto a screen in your home or on your phone. This is up close and personal, where you can feel the human being performing in front of you. It’s also a remarkable feat of stamina and memorization.

Whales & Souls is a parable, where vaguely-defined economic forces are ruining the local water. Development threatens health, harmony and well-being. But that’s the backdrop to a story about a relationship that animates the second half of the play with wit and kindness. Roe plays the star-crossed lovers well, with gestures that clearly demonstrate which side he’s on in the dialogues.

In a time of trite delivery, with predictable content streamed through multiple channels, Whales and Souls is a wonderful diversion. It’s an hour of art that defies predictions, that dodges prescriptions, that ducks hard memorialization. You’ve only got two nights to see it (Oct. 26 and 27), so get your tickets soon. Why not give an hour over to art and see what happens?

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