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The tag line for Peninsula, Madelyn Kent’s new play at Soho Rep, is “Deeply Familiar Yet Unlike Anywhere You’ve Been,” but I would submit that the atmosphere of the play and the world it takes place in are better described as “kind of familiar, yet totally disconcerting and troubling.” But also compelling, though it would be futile to try to describe the plot in a few words (not that there’s anything wrong with that); in many ways it’s rather like a weird dream, the kind that has its own coherent logic and makes sense as you experience it, but that makes people raise their eyebrows at you when you try to tell them what happened in it. Another way to put it would be that the peninsula where the play takes place, where a husband and wife live together uneasily and encounter, against a vague but sinister backdrop of political and social unrest, a priest, a doctor, and a salesman, is like a reality almost but not quite parallel to ours, where they speak with a grammar that’s somewhat out of whack compared to ours (wrong tenses, misplaced plurals) and the things they do are weird echoes of what goes on here.
Again, despite all this unsettlement, the play is fascinating to watch; of course, it helps that everything else about the production, working off this bizarre script, is first-rate, from the acting to the set and lighting. You may leave the theater feeling a tad unsure of just what you saw, but you’ll also almost certainly be impressed with the way it was pulled off, and that’s no small thing. The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” may be a cliché, but it’s a good description of what goes in with many off-off-Broadway shows, which inevitably face a crunched budget: they come up with ingenious sets. That’s the case here: Narelle Sissons has taken the narrow Soho Rep stage and constructed a series of shallow closets that become instant shoe stores, or bedrooms, or verandahs. Matt Frey’s excellent lighting scheme adds yet another layer of depth. Most of the time I consider these aspects of a performance as icing on the cake – nice to have them be good, but the underlying bit needs to be strong on its own – but when a play’s meaning is so elusive, these “peripherals” can take on a much bigger role.
As the Shopkeeper, Louis Cancelmi gets the most use out of the set, since he morphs from shoe salesman to pharmacist to hatmaker as the Woman (Marielle Heller) does her beloved shopping – mostly for her Husband (David Chandler) who has been feeling poorly – intermingled with shoplifting and hinted-at affairs. The Husband himself buys shoes for his doctor Martin (Curzon Dobell), who’s also a childhood friend, but who now is apparently a member of “the opposite side.” The conflict that must be going on for there to be sides is never defined, though one can make out basically that the Husband is rich and powerful and Martin’s group is fighting him; the Husband, it seems, was actually one of them at one point, but he defected. There’s also a Priest (Tim Cummings) who is first shown delivering an intense but odd sermon that the Husband and Wife watch briefly from the back of the church before running out roaring with laughter; later he too switches allegiances to become a “technocrat.” One would suspect that more sympathy would be written in for the rebels, the off-off-Broadway artistic sensibility being what it is, and there are a few hints of this, but mostly the politics drives the plot from the backseat, and the plot isn’t even as important as the peculiar language and otherworldly aura the characters have – the strange phrasing and vocabulary, the deliberately awkward rhythm of their interactions, the way they listen to each other and to the faraway sound of explosions.
So if there’s such a hazy plot and so much else is cryptic, does it add up to something enjoyable to watch? The answer is yes, at least if you can enjoy watching something with no pretensions to a conventional narrative, that leaves many curiosities unsatisfied at the end. Everyone in the cast is excellent – Heller and Cancelmi stand out in particular – and it’s no small thing to be able to make the kind of dialogue Kent has written for them seem like real exchanges. There are plenty of things that one would like to have more information about, characters that could have been expanded on, but that would likely destroy the delicately unnerving way it puts you off-balance. Peninsula makes you, as you watch, more aware of how you talk and move, but at the same time is funny and engaging, even if what’s happening isn’t always clear; just go to it and let it wash over you like a refreshingly different, disorienting wave.
Peninsula is at Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., until Feb. 4. Shows are at 7:30pm. Tickets via Smarttix.
Photo by Monique Carboni.