By Bryan Williams; Directed by Stephen Ryan
Produced by Isle of Shoals Productions
Off Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 9.25.16
Robert Moss Theatre, 440 Lafayette Street
by Sarah Weber on 9.17.16
Steve Walsh and Cecilia Vaicels in Occupation: Dragonslayer. Photo by Maria Baranova.
BOTTOM LINE: A musical fable about a firefighter who brings a Christmas miracle to a diner in Ground Zero.
The only thing nearly as devastating as the loss of a loved one is how the world moves ever-onward while you're still grieving. With this in mind, Bryan Williams and the late Lance Hewett co-created Occupation: Dragonslayer, a contemporary musical fable reflecting on how New Yorkers have been coping with the aftermath of 9/11. Williams has since updated and re-written the script and tries to reflect on the loss felt by all of us. It’s an appreciated and honorable task, but encapsulating so many perspectives often leaves a story stretched very thin.
Set in a diner near Ground Zero, most of the show takes place on Christmas Eve in 2002, just over one year after the attacks. Though this diner has been a staple in the neighborhood for years, the owners Harriet (Cecilia Vaicels) and Antonio (Arthur Lundquist) have to tell their regulars that they've been bought out and are closing soon. So this bittersweet Christmas is their last hoorah as patrons old and new pass through. Every person we meet shares their memories and struggles with 9/11 and its aftermath. For example, we meet Officer Stepanek (Paul Chamberlain) who was a first responder. Another of the regulars, Kiki (Erin Clancy-Bolsamo), lost a former lover in the attacks. A homeless woman (Lindsey Morgan) always shows the same picture of a missing man, asking if anyone has seen him. One of the staff, Jenny (Cait Kelly), is waiting for her boyfriend, who enlisted in the army shortly after the attacks, to return home. A rescue worker Gil (Steve Walsh) is haunted by the memories of cleaning the rubble, or "the Pile" as it was called, and the cough he's developed just won't let up.
Early in the night we meet Chris (Steffen Whorton), who can't remember who he is, why he's there, and why he’s in firefighter gear. Yet throughout the evening he gives poignant gifts to those who enter, including Damon Slade (John Mervini), the very real estate mogul who bought the diner out. As these characters share their stories, we learn more about Chris' possible identity, and his miraculous purpose in this diner.
Though there are principal characters, Occupation: Dragonslayer is, at heart, an ensemble piece. And this cast definitely maintains that spirit. Together they balance expressing their characters' personal experiences with communicating their shared grief, which creates some genuinely heartfelt comradery. I was especially drawn to Vaicels' performance as the matriarchal Harriet—she balances the iconic New York chutzpah while also being a consistently warm presence. And though she always knows when to step out of the spotlight, you can't help but notice even her smallest reactions to each and every person on stage.
Overall this ensemble performs very well, even with a script that proves inconsistent. Williams tries to tie together so many stories, ideas, and themes that it's difficult to tell where he wants the story to go. As a result, Occupation: Dragonslayer feels choppy, with some characters' actions contradicting their personalities. Though the most glaring inconsistency is the piece's message of community. During the show Walsh re-enters the stage as Duffy, a racist and sexist firefighter who cares more about his pension than his job. While he spews hateful language other characters make their disapproval very clear. Yet, earlier in the script Harriet says a company named Nomad Realty bought out the diner, to which Kiki responds, "Sounds like A-rabs. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the behind?" No one addresses or even reacts to her comment; the show goes on. I could understand if Williams is going for accuracy—the Islamaphobic and anti-Arab sentiment in this city was then, and is still, a blatant issue. But if you're going to address one form of hatred and brush off another, what kind of message does that send?
Occupation: Dragonslayer is a musical developed by New Yorkers for New Yorkers who have braved onward with the scars left by 9/11. With a Christmas miracle it tries to show the ways we've banded together as a community along with examples, whether or not they are intentional, for how we can still do better.
(Occupation: Dragonslayer plays at the Robert Moss Theatre, 440 Lafayette Street, through September 25, 2016. Remaining performances are Sundays at 3, Monday, Thursday, and Friday at 8, and Saturday at 2 and 8. Tickets are $18, students and seniors are $15. Tickets are available at dragonslayermusical.com or by calling 800.838.3006.)
Occupation: Dragonslayer is written by Bryan Williams. Directed by Stephen Ryan. Set and Lighting Design by Mitchell Ost. Costume Design by Janet Goldberg. Stage Manager is Jacqueline Rosa. Assistant Stage Manager is Giovanni Oritz.
The cast is Paul Chamberlain, Erin Clancy-Balsamo, Ruby Spryte Balsamo, Lisa Gwasda, Benjamin Errig, Theodore Errig,, Cecilia Vaicels, Arthur Lundquist, Cait Kelly, Kevin F. Rogers, Kimberly Bello,, Steffen Whorton, Judi Polson, Steve Walsh, Lindsey Morgan, John Mervini, and Steve Walsh.