Salvage, one the very best efforts in Flux Theatre Ensemble’s nine-year history of fine productions, benefits from all the skills of playwright August Schulenburg, the strengths of Flux Theatre Ensemble’s creative team, and the focused energies of an exceptional cast.
Schulenburg has honed his skill at writing dialogue that skates at the crossroads of naturalism and poetry. In Salvage he has helped his cause by making poetry itself part of his post-apocalyptic story.
At first glance, this tale about survivors of a great urban catastrophe doesn’t promise much new. I can hardly count the number of plays I’ve seen with this sort of scenario, not surprising in our era of climate change, global terrorism, and other existential threats. What’s surprising and original in Salvage are the human specifics. The national government has set up a “safe” new internet where people post requests to retrieve lost items, many with only sentimental value (decorative items, jewelry, an old camera). A network of salvage teams searches zones of the ruined city and when they find listed items, test them for contamination and if they’re safe return them to their owners.
We never learn the full nature or extent of the catastrophe. A deadly, infectious pox has poisoned the environment in the wake of an unspecified singular event that has also caused physical destruction. There seems to have been flooding as well. Even radioactivity is mentioned on one of the informational posters that deck the office walls urging workers to wear protective suits, test salvaged items for contamination, etc. To top it off, the U.S. is fighting a war in Sudan very much like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
With the nature of the apocalypse left vague, the story has lots of room to explore human nature. The very premise of the salvage operation, with its dedication to trivialities that mean nothing for actual survival but instead feed the spirit, is a fascinating commentary on human priorities. Fleshing out the idea, the script provides four equally fascinating and truly memorable characters, played by an absolutely stellar cast.
Socially handicapped team leader Dennis (Isaiah Tanenbaum) seems to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, with peculiar skills that have made him an ideal post-apocalypse leader. “‘After,’” he says, “belongs to people like me” – as opposed to people like search team member Noma (Sol Crespo), the “careless beautiful people who do what they want and get what they want because they’re so beautiful and careless.”
Handicapped in a different way is Mandy (Mike Mihm), a boisterous paraplegic veteran brought onto the team through a program that finds work for returning soldiers – much to the chagrin of the unit’s best Searcher, Akiko (Rachael Hip-Flores), who doesn’t see how a man in a wheelchair can be an asset to the team.
Akiko is both the moral and poetic center of the story. She’s the strictest adherent to regulations, and the best Searcher around, but her dedication to her work derives from personal obsessions. The play’s poetry is present in the ancient Japanese verse Akiko knows and treasures from the work of her absent translator father. The audio journal she keeps for him is full of off-the-cuff poetry too, while it functions as a narrative device for the play.
As complexities of love and lust develop among the quartet, Akiko remains a strong presence even when she’s offstage, as in the long (and a little too slow) closing scene of Act I in which Noma and Mandy move to act on their mutual if fraught attraction. Later, a parallel encounter between Akiko and Dennis proves one of the strangest, funniest, and most touching love scenes you’re likely to see on stage anywhere.
It’s hard to say enough about this cast. Tanenbaum’s Dennis is brilliant down to the smallest nervous gesture. Crespo’s Noma vibrates with soulfulness, heartbreaking with her frustration with life in a broken world. Mihm’s larger-than-life Mandy, though the least realistic character, spellbinds with pathetic energy. And I can’t say enough about Hip-Flores’s Akiko, the most compelling performance I’ve seen on any small stage this year.
Salvage is a confluence of skillful writing, perfect casting, topical timeliness, and fine creative teamwork. Heather Cohn directs with high spirits, high seriousness, a vivid sense of humor, and (mostly) optimal pacing. The play runs through April 25 at The Loisaida Center, and if there is any fairness in the world it will advance to a bigger stage. Schedule and tickets are available online through Flux’s pay-what-you-wish Living Ticket system.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00KOW4BO0][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0060892994][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1451697384][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0544370481][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00RKQ38YC]