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Theater Review: “STAY” at the Lansburgh Theatre

Theater of the First Amendment presents a unique and innovative work inspired by the indescribable.

John Lescault, Naomi Jacobson, and Michael Willis (background) in STAY at the Lansburgh Theatre. Photograph by Todd Messegee

☆☆ 1/2 stars out of four

There’s more than a whiff of Samuel Beckett in STAY, a new devised work by George Mason University’s Theater of the First Amendment currently playing at the Lansburgh Theatre. Playwright Heather McDonald and choreographer Susan Shields collaborated on the show, a fusion of theater, dance, music, and multimedia set on a rural island somewhere—the location, like the time period, is left deliberately unclear. On a stage cluttered with empty suitcases, shells, and stones, different story arcs weave in and out, but the central focus is what one character describes as “this notion of stay”: the impulse humans have to keep another close, even when it’s long past time for them to leave.

Devised works can be a missed bag, often feeling more like a patchwork of individual scenes than one work as a whole. But STAY is surprisingly cohesive, thanks to its strong underlying emotional core; an exploration of bittersweet nostalgia, love, and loss. The patriarch of sorts is Blue (played by the ever-impressive John Lescault), who presides over a community of islanders and children with his partner, Eilean (Naomi Jacobson). During STAY’s first dance sequence, performed by Kalynn Marin and Aaron Ingley to a gorgeous piece of music by Ludovico Einaudi, Blue and Eilean watch the younger pair while dancing themselves, a nod to the unavoidable passage of time.

STAY’s dance scenes are so powerful, in fact, that the action in between them can occasionally feel prolonged, even tedious. McDonald’s language is resonant but can also feel deliberately obscure, and the show’s repeated emphasis on loss wears after the first hour. (It’s redeemed, however, by Marin’s strong turn as a tortured self-harmer, and by Andrew Hawkins’s committed performance as her brother.) Kudos, in fact, goes to the entire cast, who achieve moments of pure poetry: A dance between former Washington Ballet principal dancer Laura Urgellés and actor James Whalen is more effective at communicating relationship dynamics than some of the spoken-word sections, which can be hazily haphazard and surreal at times. The Beckettian influence, while strong, is also undermined by recurring contemporary subjects that feel out of place, from the aforementioned cutting to heroin. It’s obvious McDonald wants to express the multiple fears that plague parents, but the real-world problems don’t quite fit with the ethereal otherworldliness of the island

One repeated theme is the Portuguese notion of saudade, pronounced “sow-da-jee.” The concept has no literal English translation, but it’s often interpreted to mean a kind of emotional yearning and nostalgia for days gone by, or for a lost friend or lover. This feeling of bittersweet remembrance is powerfully expressed in STAY, and the work’s incorporation of visual elements (SLAM animations by Gregory Crane) projected onstage is enormously effective. There still seems to be a disconnect between the cutting-edge visuals, the romantically expressive dance sequences, and the quietly meaningful, occasional absurd scripted scenes that the show’s overriding theme can’t quite resolve—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful and emotive to watch.

McDonald and Shields have created a work that’s strange, resonant, and oddly sad, and it’s worth a trip if only to see the potential behind this kind of artistic cross-pollination for the future. It could easily be trimmed to an hour, which would probably make it a more effective piece overall. But the powerful performances and brilliantly expressed universal themes of longing elevate it from merely experimental to innovative.

STAY, by Theater of the First Amendment, is at the Lansburgh Theatre through November 27. Tickets ($15 to $55) are available through Shakespeare Theatre’s Web site.