Dimensions of love, faith and identity compose the backbone of City Stories, brilliantly written and directed by James Phillips. The production is a compilation of six narratives, four of which are presented in a varied rotation. Each story is wholly unique and disparate, yet all are linked by themes of revelation, self-discovery, spiritual and metaphorical transcendence, and truth.
Threaded throughout are the haunting and lyrical melodies sung in the limpid, ethereal and otherworldly voice of songwriter Rosabella Gregory. Her musical compositions and performance elevate the production to soaring heights and brings it into the indelible realm of memory long after one has left 59E59 Theaters where City Stories is currently making its home as part of the Brits Off Broadway season.
We share stories because we are attempting to grapple with unanswered questions. In the retelling of narratives, especially when there are listeners, sometimes there are astounding, joyous answers which direct one onto a new path of truth. And sometimes, though the answers are gleaned, they dissipate the moment we grasp them, but it is well. The importance of the journey realized is the ultimate and satisfying answer. Such is the case for the characters in the rotation of the repertoire, Occupy, Lullaby, Narcissi, Pearl. In each the characters are confronted and confront others with questions about identity, love and truth. The answers and resolutions are ingenious and uplifting.
In Occupy (the title refers to the political movement as well as Christ’s adjuration to his disciples, “Occupy ’til I come”), Mark (Matthew Flynn) is imperiously asked, “Who are you?” by Ruth (Daphne Alexander). The young woman is looking for the right person to resolve her complaint about a letter to God she has written and mailed to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Ruth’s essentially innocuous question resounds in our ears and speaks to identity: 1) Who are we in our souls, minds and beings? 2) As Mark appears to ask throughout, are we not part of the Alpha and Omega? As the one-act proceeds, we realize along with Mark that “Who are you?” is a question for the centuries as old or perhaps older than Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Mark works as a prelate in the bowels of the crypt. There he spends his static, isolated days filing and storing unopened letters to God which have been kept there since the Great Fire of London.
Nevertheless, Ruth’s question and her persistence about her letter revitalizes Mark and awakens him to engage. He reaches into the depths of his being and meditates about who he is and whether his purpose can hold any significance beyond taking up space and time in the crypt where he has perfunctorily existed in a living death. Meeting with Ruth in secret leads to more questions. The self-revelations lead to a resurgence of vitality. Eventually Mark ignites a communion of agreement and unity with Ruth; this spreads to a much wider community of souls. In his dawning realizations about his life, his faith, and his relationship to others, Mark affirms and is encouraged to become lifted to a high level. We empathize with him and understand the ironic truths that as a cleric he never solidified before. In seeking answers Ruth and he are transported from the mire of hopelessness and the shadowlands of doubt. Their faith becomes a living force. They are occupiers.
In Lullaby, Audrey (Daphne Alexander) asks how she can escape the plague that has consumed her friend Rachel (Phoebe Sparrow), her lover Joe (Tom Gordon), and eventually the whole of England. Audrey becomes the only person conscious after a span of a few weeks. The gradually consuming plague eats away until all individuals do is sleep. The overriding question remains: what is this sleeping plague and are people dying of it? Audrey cannot immediately discover the answers, but she arrests sleep’s inevitably by walking the streets of London and visiting exclusive, upper-crust stores and other places she never frequented before.
This result is humorous and we are curious. However, we cannot escape the chilling revelation that Phillips is suggesting larger metaphors/themes about sleep and unconsciousness. In Garcia Lorca’s and numerous writers’ (including Shakespeare) conceptualizations, life is but a dream and when we die we awake to another realm or go into an oblivion of torments. Another theme suggested by Phillips’s sleep metaphor is that humans seek not to be conscious. They seek escape into an unaware, sleep-like state because living is painful and confusing. Life requires energy to confront the struggles and somehow ignore, despite reminders, the inexorable threat that each day may be our last. Rosabella Gregory beautifully incorporates The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” throughout. It is poignant and sweetly mordant. Does Audrey elude the lengthening tides of sleep? Does she find the answers she is looking for? Do we?
In Narcissi, Natalie’s (Sarah Quintrell), question for Jack (Tom Gordon) about why he loves her is answered immediately and unequivocally. Natalie doubts Jack for reasons that playwright Phillips intimates throughout this selection. Her skepticisms about his love have to do with her, not Jack: self-doubt, seeing love with a narrow view, inability to love, an unformed identity, fear, etc. Jack persists and eventually, Natalie has a relationship with him while still attempting to divine what his love means. When she unwittingly visits his artist’s studio, she discovers an aspect of his love that she doesn’t understand. She decries it and runs away from him, from herself and their relationship.
It takes her a lifetime to understand the significance of Jack’s idea of love, her shifting identities and the uniqueness of how he communicates his love to her before she is finally able to receive it and find contentment in returning his love. It is because they are “pilgrim souls together” (a reference to Yeats’s poem “When You Are Old”) that their relationship and ineffable bond is sustained. Like the narcissus which symbolizes the rebirth of spring (referenced in the title), their love transcends and is able to be renewed in the souls of their secret gardens.
In Pearl the vital question “What is your name?” is asked by David (Matthew Flynn) during a prank phone call in the middle of the night, and answered by Pearl (Phoebe Sparrow) at the conclusion of the one-act. Through serendipity David and Pearl meet and form a relationship, though he is happily married and he loves his wife. Pearl is an artist who forthrightly refers to herself as a copier of art, an expert at mimicry. When they meet in The National Gallery, she is copying a Caravaggio, “The Supper at Emmaus” (Christ back from the dead suddenly recognized by his disciples). In a symbolic twist inferentially related to the painting, David has an epiphany that she is the woman he spoke to on the phone in the dead of night. As if awakened from a dream state, a kind of death, “Marguerite” has come back to him, his long lost love who was tragically taken from him when they were youngsters. He has received a second chance to commune with the soul of Marguerite reincarnated in Pearl. With her, his pain of loss is exorcised and they achieve love and peace.
A wealthy man, David sets up Pearl in his family townhouse where she can paint and be supported in style. Pearl talks about how their relationship and his love have benefited her and helped ground her in security and identity. (The playwright includes her humorous aside about how we get to hear her perspective about their affair.) During the course of their encounter both are able to define for themselves how and why they have been brought together. Pearl provides the final answers for David as he helps her to realize the areas of her life that she was incapable of discovering before she met him. Their entire journey together is mystical and miraculous and both David and Pearl (both names are symbolic on a number of levels) flourish in completeness as a result of knowing one another.
Every aspect of this production manifests the unities of drama like a well-crafted monument to creativity. The writing, the directing, the staging, the magnificent acting and Rosabella Gregory’s musical artistry and compositions cohere in harmony and balance. In their storytelling, the actors are rapt, moment to moment, reaching out and listening to each other and grasping our minds to engage us with their every word. The staging and design is appropriately spare, the space close and intimate to allow our imaginations to fill in the details. The poetic writing, the distinctive characterizations, the heightened dialogue and the acute sensibilities of the actors who make us believe every important word they say are stark and real.
This production is a must-see. I can’t rave about it enough and I am tempted to drop in another night when the two legs of the repertoire that I missed are being performed. City Stories runs at 59E59 Theaters until May 29.