image by Juliacks
BOTTOM LINE: Swell succeeds through its unusual script, staging, set and costuming.
The pages of Juliack’s graphic novel come to life onstage in Swell, a play that successfully recreates the comic book style by having the actors don cartoony paper wigs, drawn-on over-the-top clothing, and outlined eyes, imitating the scrawls of an ink pen. Juliacks designed the costumes herself, perhaos explaining how they resemble the pages of her graphic novel so closely. This effect is just one of the many attributes that makes Swell an unusual theatrical experience.
The play centers on Emmeline (Emma Galvin) and her sister Lucy (Eija Ranta). The play opens with the two of them seated on the risers within the audience driving in a car. Emmeline has missed Lucy and wants to talk but Lucy refuses to speak, instead switching on the radio and biting Emmeline’s finger when she attempts to change the station. The ages of the characters are never fully outlined, Emmeline seems to simultaneously be eight-years old and eighteen-years old during the course of the play. Flashbacks might be childhood memories, or these might just be very childish young adults. These flashbacks show Lucy and Emmeline’s relationship to be a complex one. In one scene the two play in a tomb in the graveyard neighboring their house; their legs shake with excitement as they point their flashlights at each other and realize they have found a secret place all their own. The two quickly enter into a world of childish make-believe and ritual.
Soon afterwards however, we see the two girls at each other’s throats. Emmeline is decorating eggs with her friends when Lucy feels ignored and decides to smash the eggs. True to the comic book style, the two fight in slow motion with their faces contorted in cartoonish anger. The sisters are separated when Emmeline goes off to university where she spends her days smoking marijuana and drinking herself into a stupor. Her time of self exploration is cut short when she receives bad news from home. She goes home to her parents (Katey Parker and Dan Vidor, who take on multiple roles in the play). The play cleverly uses shadow puppets to communicate the tormented thoughts of the family as they suffer somewhere halfway between awake and asleep, sometimes slipping into painful and strange dreams. The script successfully articulates the half-conscious thoughts that float through one’s mind as they slip off towards sleep.
Swell is undeniably a unique play in many ways, defying all expectations and clichés. It accomplishes this through its eye-catching black and white comic book style, its use of the entire stage (including the risers), its lack of structured plot, and its focus on emotions over dialogue and character. Those interested in innovative theater surely will find the work groundbreaking, whereas those used to more traditional theater may find themselves overwhelmed by how unusual the piece is. Galvin shines as Emmeline, able to take on many tones and make even dream sequences and playtime moments fully convincing. The energy of the entire cast flows constantly, bursting from every eye-catching scene as comic pages are brought to life.
(Swell plays as part of The Culture Project's Women Center Stage Festival, at The Living Theater, 21 Clinton Street at East Houston Street, through April 6, 2012. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at womencenterstage.org.)