There’s something about Reverse Chronology that can work magic with a tale of innocence lost. Take for example Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the former beginning with the end of a marriage and ending with the characters’ first meeting, the latter starting off with three irreparably estranged friends and climaxing with the threesome as starry-eyed best-friends-forever.  There’s something particularly poignant about a happy ending when you already know the disillusionment yet to come.

Probably no event in American history has caused a greater loss of innocence than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and playwright Joshua Fardon must have had this in mind when he sat down to write Shake, a terrific new entry in the “Reverse Chronology” genre, now getting its World Premiere production at Theatre of NOTE.

Set in New York City and moving back in time, month by month, from October 2002 to September 10, 2001, Shake mixes drama, comedy, and mystery in equal measure, performed by a crackerjack ensemble and directed with flair by Kiff Scholl.

Shake’s first scene introduces us to 30ish Bill (Joe Egender) and Peggy (understudy Marja-Lewis Ryan), exes meeting by chance in a New York City park thirteen months after 9/11. We learn from the scene that Bill has recently been up in New Hampshire looking for a man named Matt whom he hasn’t seen or heard from for two months now. Bill also tells Peggy that he has quit his job, that in fact he was “kind of encouraged” to quit, and pulls his shaking hand out of a pocket as an explanation.  Peggy tells Bill rather nonchalantly that she’s been homeless for the past month for a) not having paid her rent for three months and b) having planted a cherry bomb (and her résumé and headshot) in her “fucking bitch cunt” acting teacher’s mailbox.  At the end of the scene Bill gives Peggy her jacket and a key. “69th and Columbus,” he tells her. “It’s in the lot at the Northeast corner.”

An amusing scene, one which introduces us to two of Shake’s eight characters, but more importantly one that plants clues in our minds about people and events already known to Bill and Peggy, but which will only slowly become clear to the audience as we travel back in time.

There’s the aforementioned Matt, who Bill says disappeared after announcing that he was heading up to New Hampshire. We learn that Bill traveled to New England in search of Matt, and that Matt’s wife Robin is dead. Bill mentions someone named Claire, and when he asks Peggy how well she knew her, Peggy replies “You know how well.”   Also, there are comments about a scene from Antigone Peggy did in her acting class while wearing a cream colored bed sheet, a previous meeting between Bill and Peggy at “The Red Bouquet,” and finally, Peggy’s preoccupation with her “fat arms.”

Audience members are advised to pay close attention to these clues and to remember them as Shake travels month by month back to the evening before September 11.  

Later (earlier?) scenes introduce us to Matt (Troy Blendell), Claire (Hiwa Bourne), and acting-teacher-from-hell Julia (Michelle Gardner). We also meet Peggy’s scene partner Belinda (Alana Dietze), Claire’s boss Stormy (Linda Graves), and (in the last/first scene) Matt’s wife Robin (Bridgette Campbell). 

Little by little, pieces of the puzzle fall together, relationships between characters become clearer, and mysteries get solved—with one notable exception. (See what you make of Shake’s eleventh hour—or should that be eleventh month?—journey into the Twilight Zone.)

There are numerous performance gems, particularly Gardner’s as Julia, a monstrosity of an acting teacher given as scene-stealingly hilarious a star turn as you’re likely to see for a good long while. Graves is another laugh-getter as Stormy, registering steadily mounting disbelief at someone’s (not Peggy’s) almost totally made-up résumé. Egender, unforgettable in He Asked For It, is once again an electric stage presence as Bill and the epitome of “in the moment.” The glamorous Bourne has just the right air of mystery to play the enigmatic Claire, and delivers a spellbinding monolog about what may or may not have happened to her on September 11.  Blendell does powerful, believable work as a man obsessed with a mission begun on that fateful day in 2001.  Campbell and Dietze register nicely in smaller roles. Ryan has good moments as Peggy, but her performance would benefit from a more naturally expressive line delivery (plus there seems nothing in the script to indicate that Peggy is anything but a fine actress and not the ludicrously inept one Ryan plays her as).   

Terence McFadden’s abstract, angular set makes for a nice fit with Shake’s multi-scene, multi-locale setup, and is beautifully lit by Matt Richter. Edgar A. Fishman’s sound design increases drama and suspense. Costumes by Lauren Letherer are a just-right fit for each character.  Thumbs up for Keith Allan’s props. Shake is produced by Pamela Jurus, with Joshua Wolf Coleman and 6140productions and stage managed by Kelly Egan.

Provocative, engaging, funny, and frequently riveting, Shake is likely to keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish—and give you plenty to talk about and reflect on long after its final blackout.

Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 7, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Darrett Sanders

Comments are closed.