Responsibility, obligation, and service are the themes of Erin Courtney’s new play The Service Road, running now at the Voorhees Theater of New York City College of Technology. The curtain rises on a typical day in the park, maybe Prospect Park, where Lia (Kalle Macrides), a tour guide for the ornithologically curious waits on the service road for a group to lead. Frank (Cory Einbinder), her friend and a park ranger, wishes her luck on the first anniversary of her new life. One year ago today he saved her from a botched suicide attempt in the park and gave her her present job. He tells her to play it safe because the news is forecasting strange weather.
A high school senior who has been sentenced to community service is her only customer for the day, but undaunted they head out together. Sure enough, a storm kicks up. It is a massive, unexpected, furious storm. Trees snap like twigs and tumble to the ground, and both Lia and the high school senior swear they saw a tornado. In the aftermath of the storm the world seems like it has been turned upside down. In the new world order, Lia and the senior feel comfortable confessing to each other that they have both attempted suicide — she three times, he six. She couldn’t live with the guilt of being responsible for the death of her younger half-brother, but she was saved by the unexpected kindness of strangers. He says no one ever tried to save him.
Lia wanders through the new, topsy turvy post-storm world interacting with characters from Alice’s Wonderland: Linus, the carousel operator; Gus, the parks department scissor lift operator; and a little toddler wearing a Met’s cap, improbably alone and running through the park chasing birds. Through her journeys Lia has to come to grips with her feeling of responsibility for the tragedy that took her sibling and the imperative to service espoused by the other characters. Along the way she turns dead geese into talismanic armor, fights an explosion of shit from the sewers with a fire hose, and saves the big headed toddler from an giant, evil skeletor hound.
For the first fifteen minutes, the magical realism of the mise-en-scène, which is reinforced by the light poetry of the dialogue, the wonderfully evocative build out of the stage and the use of puppets, makes Service Road feel like a childrens’ play. Halfway through, however, the viewer realizes that innocence and childhood in The Service Road are fictive idealizations, thoroughly dyed in nostalgia, presented from the point of view of an adulthood stained and torn by life. The playwright confuses the “real” scene, where magic is the result of mental illness, and the real magic that invests the world in childhood with the device of the storm (what the English naturalist John Ruskin called “the pathetic fallacy”). The result demonstrates the resiliency of children and the necessity for some wounded people to return to childhood as a prerequisite for healing.
The Voorhees Theater was, for me, an undiscovered gem. At 186 Jay Street in Brooklyn, it’s not a space that lies on the beaten path for most theatergoers. As a part of New York City Tech’s campus I imagine it functions mainly as a space for student productions and commencement ceremonies. But The Service Road’s creative team (including set designer Mike Riccio, sound designer Mark Bruckner, and light designer Sue Brandt) transform the space into a fairytale woodland on the outskirts of civilization — and in the middle of Brooklyn. The work is more collaborative than the list of designers suggests. The principle male actor is also a puppet and video designer, as is the playwright. Close collaboration results in production values that surpass much indie theater — though it must be noted that this level of technical sophistication on the part of designers and directors is catching on in New York. From Peter and the Starcatcher to P. S. Jones and the Frozen City, puppetry and video elements are clearly on the rise. The production is a luscious treat for your eyes and ears, a recreation of the magical lifeworld of childhood. It is also mature reflection on the residual guilt many adults feel on surviving a difficult childhood.
Through February 2nd