The special effect was subtle and unexpected: a black feather, until now hanging from the ceiling of the charming Fox Egg Gallery, was released from a string that wove along pipes all the way backstage. With a silent pull of the thread, the feather floated down to earth. This carefully constructed image had a lasting hold on us. It embodied the bird-themed poetry that cut through the raw play.
Gadfly Theatre Productions broke its own rules by letting this show’s level of violence onto the stage. But their treatment of the play given the visibly small budget, space and group of actors justified their breaking of those rules.
Tira Palmquist’s And Then They Fell mixes two stories: one about two high school seniors forced into homelessness, and the other about 5,000 red-winged blackbirds that fell from the sky at the same time and place two years in a row. Jordan and Cal are the seniors — Jordan dealing with her mother’s abusive boyfriend while her mother is in detox. Cal was thrown out of the house when they told their father they never identified as a girl. The teens cope with stuff that makes tests and homework seem silly, and through it all, they find support in each other. The question is whether that support is strong enough for the evils in their way.
Most impressive was how the actors playing Jordan and Cal are currently in high school. A smiling Mindy Vang, who played Jordan, explained during the post-show talk that she takes college courses through the PSEO program and does “a few shows a year.” Adele Bolier (Cal) goes to St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and acts every day. The actors’ youth showed though for better and worse, but overall the casting made the play more real. Three adult actors supported them, with Troy Stolp as the mother’s boyfriend and Kjertina Whiting as a variety of characters. Starla Larson shined in her handful of roles. They included Jordan’s mother who was optimistic to the point of emotional abuse, the school custodian who let Jordan in early to shower, and the TV preacher who captivated Jordan as she took shelter in a diner and dreamed of the birds incident. Like those of Jordan’s life, this event was so big, terrible and impossible to explain, yet so strangely beautiful. The show was unexpected and detailed. Though definitely a drama, there was plenty of humor to relieve the tension.
According to the program, 40 percent of homeless youth are queer, and 40 percent are reported victims of sexual abuse, compared to 7 percent and 25 percent, (respectively) of the national youth population. It was immediately clear why we should care about what we were seeing. To help even more, Gadfly invited the Sexual Violence Center and Avenues for Homeless Youth to the theater. Director Cassandra Snow spoke to guests about how they hoped the show would move folks to get more informed and involved around this, and the people we needed to talk to were right there. (This is theater with a message done right, according to recent conversations I have sat in on. This story had a point, and the point was made unmistakably clear. Take note.)
The soundscape — birdsong and heavy metal — played from some speakers in the back; the lights flicked on and off, leaving the whole room pitch black when a scene ended. Simple, but powerful. Though the production could have used the narrow gallery space more dynamically (arching the audience seats or having chairs along the walls rather than a block of audience and a proscenium-style stage, for example), this show did a lot with what it had. Most of all, it followed through on the things it was trying to do.
There were moments, particularly during the stream-of-conscious switches to the bird images, when the direction could have made the poetry more powerful. There were also places when the humble acting was too humble, failing us on key moments when we could have used more emotion to take us there. The first shock of violence — when Jordan survives a sexual assault — was haunting, with the lights going out and the actors continuing the scene with their voices, leaving us to face the trauma in our minds. The violence at the end was less effective.
Somewhere along the way, the performers lost hold on the challenging material they managed to control for most of the show. It left the finale less convincing than the rest. As the friend who accompanied me to the show said, “if they had taken the same care as they had to string up those feathers” with every facet of the show, it would have been flawless.
But don’t get me wrong. Especially after seeing the cast debrief after the show, beaming as they talked about the tough material and the thrill of working together, I felt immense joy for them. Call me sentimental, but these people did not phone it in, not for one second. They told an important story while touching the profoundness of thousands of birds in flight that suddenly crashed to earth. With all this in mind, check out the gallery this weekend and see them. If nothing else, it will be refreshing.