It’s 100 degrees on a Sunday afternoon. The sun is shining brightly and, for once, no one seems to be in a hurry. Inside it’s dark and chilly and the stars are shining. Today’s adventure is Under the Dragon’s Tail, four short plays by playwright and director Isaac Byrne.
The theatrical quartet was created during an extended rumination on mental and physical health, isolation, and the meaning of community when people are separated—especially when they fear for their lives. These stories evoke the hardest feelings so many of us have felt over the last few years. Byrne can take the thread of an idea, the everyday pains of living in uncertain times, and spin it into a fierce yarn. His stories are not for the faint of heart.
In each of the pieces, we meet the characters in the middle of living (or re-living) the worst moments of their own lives. For this reason, each also begins in a state of high tension that only occasionally abates. In short, consider this your content warning. There are moments that may shock you out of your seat. Some scenes underscore the importance of making a choice. Others may make you feel the claustrophobia of no choices left to make.
Three would-be bandits confront one another in a field after their heist goes terribly wrong. The mostly monotonal Ace (Aubrey Clyburn) seems to be the instigator of this plan gone wrong. She is bothered neither by the cop she killed nor by the numerous venomous snakes surrounding their temporary rest spot. She has a habit of copying the serpents’ head-bobbing when it comes to calming Reggie, the girl who loves Ace for all her befuddling ways.
Reggie (Melissa Mateos) is much more appropriately vexed by the circumstances and isn’t beyond shrieking into the night when Ace can’t—or won’t—address the questions raised by their relationship and the events of the evening. She’s caught between the rock and hard place and can’t decide which is going to hurt more if she runs toward it.
Finally, there is Jacky (Danielle Grisko). Gut-shot and full of rage, she pleads time and again for the help, for Reggie to take her to a hospital. And sometimes it seems like indecisive Reggie is going to do it. You can feel Jacky’s desperation in the absurdity of the situation, and the utter disbelief.
The piece balances on the relationship between Ace and Reggie, but there really isn’t enough of either of them to keep it from tipping over. Clyburn’s performance is wooden and almost completely void of emotion, which makes it difficult to believe the times when she puts on her snake-charmer act for Reggie. And there isn’t anything truly charming to help us suspend disbelief that Reggie could be so smitten. We are led to believe that there is a long and difficult road behind them, but there isn’t enough on the stage to make it make sense.
More than anything, “Ophiology” feels incomplete. With all the missing context, there’s too much work to do trying to figure out what happened, what brought Ace and Reggie together, or what could have enticed Jacky to participate in whatever unlawful events occurred when by all available measures she’s the most levelheaded of the bunch. Is Ace a person with autism or a person with psychopathology? It’s hard to say. The piece ends with what should be a logical and satisfying conclusion, but Reggie is driving the story by that point and she’s too unreliable to trust. The lights went down, but there was no conclusion.
“The Golden Fleece”
Starring Conor M. Hamill as the legendary Jason (he of the Argonauts), this piece imagines, I suppose, what Hell would look like if the vengeful Medea has the temperature gauge. Here we get a mostly straightforward retelling of the mythical pair and their adventures, with the twist that every unreliable bit of storytelling is quickly course-corrected by the being behind the controls. It becomes plain that the truth isn’t easy for Jason to accept, or to recount, but that it is essential to his growth. And possibly his redemption?
Jason sizzles but isn’t burned, he drinks but can’t get drunk. All he can do is lay out the story free of a fourth wall. Hamill is a charismatic narrator, and he encourages talking back. Of the four mini-plays, this is the most accessible. Yes, Jason is being tortured throughout. He has lost what matters most. But he never loses his sense of humor!
“Letters to a Cosmonaut”
A single crew member (Haley Rice) is startled awake by the countdown to liftoff. As she tries everything in her power to abort the mission, turn back, make the pain stop, a series of recorded instructions continue to play. The coldness and finality of the messages give her little hope of success, so she plods awkwardly around the space in magnetic boots trying to talk herself out of the isolation she already feels, the distance from the Earth and everyone on it. She talks of the people she loves, but who also caused pain. And she even misses the pain.
“Cosmonaut” feels very immediate and panicked. The title character frantically reaches for one thing after another to bring her joy, bring her peace, bring her closer to home. Everything is shaky, hot, and uncertain in the capsule. She feels lost, just as many of us have felt in the presence of the COVID virus. Perhaps you felt jettisoned into space, stepping out your door and into a world made dangerous by invisible particles over which you have little to no control. Perhaps isolation made you feel as if the walls were closing in and there was no escape. Maybe you think a little pain here and there can help the greater pain less overwhelming. This is the plight of the Cosmonaut, and of the pandemic survivor.
“One. Two. Three.”
In this final piece, a couple—Ash played by Evan Simone Frazier and Wednesday played by Kat Donachie—prepare to sign their lives apart. Movers are cleaning out the last of their furniture while they carry a few individual belongings in duffel bags. Soon enough they start to pull out all of their meaningful knickknacks, perhaps in an attempt to tease back the memories of how they used to make each other feel. But it doesn’t work.
Wednesday speaks in philosophical-sounding aphorisms while Ash asks a lot of questions and gets no clear answers. At least she’s direct. The overall effect reminded me of Beckett’s “Play,” wherein three vases speak to each other in half-thoughts that somehow work together to create a feeling if not weave a specific plot. Rounding out an hour and a half of emotionally jarring theater, this one might be a bit too Avant Garde for its own good. Or its place in the series. There is a sense of finality and conclusion, though, and that is a relief.
Perhaps this is a way of pointing out how ridiculous it is for people to love each other. How ridiculous it is who we can fall in love with. How ridiculous it is that we can fall out of love with those same people. People are full of hypocrisy and confusion, simultaneously hedonistic and self-destructive. We are ridiculous. Life is ridiculous. But sometimes, for a brief and shining moment, we are able to connect. And in those times, if we are lucky, everything makes sense.
“Are you grieving?” the Cosmonaut asks. “Are you heart-shatteringly alone even when you’re with people? Do you still miss someone who hurt you? Are you estranged from people you’re supposed to love? Do you feel sometimes like you’ve suddenly been shot outside your own body and the world seems like this very far away thing and no one and nothing car reach you and you are breaking apart from the inside?”
This is Under the Dragon’s Tail in short. We have been experiencing something extraordinary and terrible, all of us, and yet we are expected to go on like nothing has happened. It can be maddening to have to ignore what you feel, but society still demands output and productivity, earnings and standardized workdays. The series, though not completely cohesive, is an outpouring of all the feelings that aren’t easy to experience but are essential to the human experience. We need to feel pain and confusion and loss when things are painful and confusing. When we lose people. When we lose pieces of ourselves. When those losses are the same thing. There is mourning. Sometimes there is reckoning. Sometimes it’s best to just walk away. The growth, however, is in the confrontation. See Under the Dragon’s Tail, and maybe you’ll see a glimpse of yourself.
Theatre 4the People and Matthew Corozine Studio Theater present
Under the Dragon’s Tail
Playing for a limited engagement through August 14
357 W 36th Street, Manhattan
For more information see: theatre4thepeople.org