By Erika Phoebus; Directed by Isaac Byrne
Produced by Theatre 4the People
Part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
Off Off Broadway, Play with music
Runs through 7.31.18
The Flamboyán Theater at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street
by Asya Danilova on 7.14.18
Elizabeth Kensek, Harlan Short, Anna Stefanic, Erika Phoebus, Grant Parker, Ben Quinn,
and Chris Cornwell in Rusalka. Photo by Felipe Beltran.
BOTTOM LINE: Set in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, Rusalka is simply a killer feminist show with excellent casting and blood-stirring music.
in Polish folklore, Rusalkas are mermaids who, through their songs and beauty, lure men to woodland lakes to kill them. That sisters Aletta (Elizabeth Kensek) and Nessa (playwright Erika Phoebus) used to play Rusalkas when they were kids turns out to be prophetic. During World War II, as young women in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, they join the resistance and are tasked with a mission. The older Aletta must seduce a Nazi officer, Paul (Ben Quinn), and bring him for a stroll in the woods—where he will be shot while the younger Nessa serves as lookout. But things don’t go quite as planned.
Rusalka presents an explosive mixture of eroticism and danger, but not in a cheesy, action-film-like way. Erika Phoebus's “femme fatales" Aletta and Nessa have real-life prototypes who operated in a similar way in the Netherlands resistance. In her play, Phoebus masterfully captures the strength and anxiety of women who get this close to the enemy, continuing the topic of sexual awakening from her early play Kiss It, Make It Better, but this time putting her heroines in more oppressive circumstances.
Rusalka opens with Aletta and Nessa wearing only slips as they go through the seduction/self-defense routine in the dark woods, a picture evoking folklore images of Rusalkas. The innocent Nessa can’t help but giggle, throwing Aletta on the ground playfully—“Again!” she abruptly commands. But for Aletta, this is not a game, but an essential tactic of resistance and survival. This sparsely worded prologue is a perfect introduction to the determined and fearless Aletta, and the feisty, yet deeply scarred, Nessa. As the play continues, Phoebus and Kensek embody these two sisters with a bone-chilling truthfulness.
It's in an underground jazz bar where the sisters are to meet their target. Bartender Daniel (Chris Cornwell) and the four musicians have known the two sisters since they were kids, yet there is something uneasy at this joyous reunion. Everyone knows that women come here to seek out patronage by powerful German officers, which implies “spending time” in a small adjoining room. Fear and uncertainty reign—they are lucky to be allowed to play music, but only at gunpoint. Paul (Benn Quinn), seemingly sweet and nonthreatening, is seen here first as an enemy in Nazi uniform. When his superior Officer (Harlan Short) shows up, the tension can be cut with a knife.
Rusalka is at its best when the dialogue yields to the dynamic, dance-like staging by directors Isaac Byrne and Alicia Rodis (the fighting/intimacy director)—for two reasons. First, the contrast of power and weakness is masterfully achieved through physicality and the score, whereas the spoken words sometimes over-explain and slow the plot. It also can be difficult to hear the dialogue since music plays throughout the show. And while this constant music is one of the main components in the show’s success, the volumes need to be adjusted.
The score, a seamless blend of modern and wartime songs in jazzy arrangements (music curating is by Chris Cornwell), is an emotional barometer of Rusalka. The music peaks and then softens as a tide, responding to what is happening in the room. Occasionally the dialogue and vocals intertwine, transferring the audience into the consciousness of the characters. The effect is magical. And the fact that the musicians are also characters makes the music more than just ambient background. In Rusalka, the music comes from real people playing both out of pleasure and out of fear; it holds an equal part in the conversation.
The minimalist set—a bar, table, and two chairs—suits the play, which is busy with intertwining dialogue. Having the audience on three sides of the stage might not provide an equal experience for everybody, but the ever-flowing movement of the choreography won’t leave you staring at somebody’s back for too long. Rusalka is an irresistable and intricate dance of seduction and threat, a play that grips you with its poetic beauty and morbid horror, yet is incredibly empowering.
(Rusalka plays at The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street, through July 31, 2018. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are 7/12 at 9:30, 7/14 at 9, 7/18 at 5:30, 7/24 at 8, 7/28 at 3:45, and 7/31 at 9:30. Tickets are $25 and are available at planetconnections.org.)
Rusalka is by Erika Phoebus. Directed by Isaac Byrne. Music Coordinator is Chris Cornwell. Costume Design by Ben Philipp. Fight/Intimacy Director is Alicia Rodis. Stage Manager is Kaira Karnad.
The cast is Elizabeth Kensek, Erika Phoebus, Chris Cornwell, Ben Quinn, and Harlan Short. Musicians are Travis Emery Hackett (Percussion), Alana Rader (Trumpet), Anna Stefanic (Piano), and Grant Parker (Bass).