Performing Arts: Theater
January 15, 2016
The most enduring critique awaiting every creator is to “show, don’t tell.” The deceptively simple adage aims to prevent purely cognitive understandings of work for the sake of full sensory immersion. Regardless, in Employee of the Year, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone of 600 HIGHWAYMEN opt to tell for all its worth for the Public Theatre’s Under the Radar Festival, managing to inform us beyond what we can process; a torrential life path dances cheek-to-cheek with our own.

Eleven-year-old Rachel Dostal speaks first as three-year-old “J” with the childlike delivery that hollers despite being within whispering range. She declares her age and sets her surroundings with personal descriptions, inviting us into memories detailed enough to numb the lack of context. She accumulates years, yet continues to churn out the same voice. More preteens enter to usurp embodiment of J as she ages, holding on to young J’s piercing demand for attention. At three, it is endearing; at eighty, it is tragic.

The one-woman show split between five actresses has no set; naturalistic blocking is tossed in favor of a physical behavior that codifies the young females’ lanky forms. Fingers, fused into mittens, neither reach nor touch, fostering a guarded connection to the outside world.

As we move closer to the present, gestures meet lunging legs. Before J turns eighty, a dance erupts between all five girls, maintaining bluntly minimal gestures to build alliances, encapsulating the discipline and shabbiness of childhood games as a permanent balance we carry all our lives. Movement denotes life, even though, in doing so, we approach the end of J’s.

This physicality allows the play’s pathos to manifest spatially. When new actresses file in, previous ones remain, displaced as boundaries, objects, or other people. Realistic composition gives way to abstracted space. A scene in a bus places J and a girl who robs her across the stage, impossible in an actual vehicle, but true to J’s increasing isolation as she searches for her birthmother. Recycling portrays J’s life as one haunted by her own memory and expectation.

Such spatial sensitivity allows emotion to live in the body. Between present tense narration and past tense participation, dispassionately delivered poignancy places punches more deeply in the gut, as seventeen-year-old J “hears [her]self howl” when she returns to her house, burned down along with her adopted mother. She squeals a lament describing her annual bodily shutdowns on the fire’s anniversary. Psychosomatic pain compensates for invisible feelings.

Telling us J’s convoluted life is not the end, but the means to serve a much greater one. J’s aging is warranted by nothing other than the need to fast forward. Changes in life are jarring and imperceptible. By squeezing J’s life into seventy minutes, we see a concentrated chain of disruption – privileging us to a narrator who ages rapidly before us rather than staying temporally put. J both speaks as an elder with incredible sense memory and as a three-year-old with wisdom of what her life will become – a compulsory road paved by love for a mother she never meets.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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