BOTTOM LINE: An engaging and eye-opening ensemble piece about a 1988 support group for people with AIDS.
An ensemble is just that, an ensemble. The group works as a whole to tell one story with no one actor taking on the weight of the entire event. Raft of the Medusa is a perfect example of an ensemble piece of theatre. The actors work together to weave a show that is more a dose of reality than a traditional linear story. The characters collaborate to tell the tale. Stories arise and the audience is taken in and out of different situations; the ensemble manages to create scenes of chaos, calm and panic that paint the story in a variety of colors to create a gripping ride.
The show is actually very simple. The majority takes place in the room of a support group for people infected with AIDS in 1988. The disease is linked heavily with homosexuals and drug users; although other types of people are addressed in the play as well, the Zeitgeist still places people in those first two categories as the primary carriers of the disease. The support group is a collection of New Yorkers from all walks of life, from a junkie to a journalist to a yuppie to a 16-year old girl. It is an unfortunate cross section and a very believable group.
Raft of the Medusa explores each character's story, some more in depth than others, but each of the 12 actors gets his or her moment. Each character is going through something with their own AIDS-related point of view. Some are infected and at various stages of the disease's progresson. Don (John Gazzale) has just died and the group, including Don's lover Michael (Jeremy Brena) is mourning his death. Cora (Samantha Fontana) is grieving because she is losing her husband, and she is also infected with the virus.
The subject is not a happy one and playwright Joe Pintauro paints as honest a story as he can. Quality acting contributes to this story's realness. While it is set in 1988, the truths of what each character is going through can easily be realized today. AIDS is still very real and how it affects people rings true in this play. Observing a group like this was as fascinating as it was sobering. I thoroughly enjoyed Raft of the Medusa. It took me on an unexpected journey into a world that some people can easily overlook. The acting is excellent and I was engrossed in the story from the beginning. I recommend it to all theatre fans -- for $19 it's a bargain.
(Raft of the Medusa plays at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, through October 22, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7PM and Saturdays at 3PM and 7PM. Tickets are $19 and are available at cherrylanetheatre.org or by calling 212.352.3101.)