‘Blue Straggler’ at Source Festival

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The Source Festival is a showcase of new works; not world premieres but workshops of 3 full-length works in progress (the 12 ten-minute plays are icing on the cake, so to speak). For example, last year’s Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea, which recently closed at Theatre Alliance, shrunk from 2 hours in 2014 to 80 minutes of tight lyricism today, and it now has a completely different ending, and that’s after its L.A. opening in March, its Phoenix opening in April…

Luke Cieslewicz and Heidi Fortune. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Luke Cieslewicz and Heidi Fortune. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In other words, at the Source Festival you are likely seeing scripts that are fresh off the press: nothing is chiseled in stone yet; things will change. In fact, that is one of the functions of the workshop: usually, work is done on the script during the rehearsal process, as scenes are tested, tightened or clarified.

With that in mind, Rebecca Bossen’s Blue Straggler, the new work’s entry under the Festival’s Science and Soulmates category, will definitely see changes in its future.

A love story gone awry, Blue Straggler offers us Lisa, a Ph.D. candidate in astrophysics, who has fallen in love with Clarissa, a chocolatier. Clarissa commits suicide, and Lisa’s world comes tumbling down.

The play deals with Lisa’s recovery.

The problem of the play is that, instead of taking the direct approach and then spiraling off from the known and grounded into the fantasy of string-theory, Bossen takes an indirect approach, giving us ungrounded fantasy before, finally, with the second act, zeroing in on what the play is really about.

Lisa is played with straightforward appeal by Jenny Donovan. I would have preferred a slightly more idiosyncratic character — after all this young woman supposedly wore a black plastic bag to her prom to protest something or other — and then decided to cook and build a gingerbread castle for Clarissa, even though she had never baked a thing in her life.

Clarissa is portrayed with calm sensuality by Heidi Fortune. I wanted more from Ms. Fortune as well, but the problem goes back to the script’s “misdirection”.  Instead of developing Lisa and Clarissa’s love story, it takes us into the ether between life and death, where we meet Ragged, played with a Kafkaesque clownishness by Luke Cieslewics. His job is to escort Clarissa to a parallel universe.

His conflict is: supposedly, Lisa, during her psychotic episode following Clarissa’s suicide, almost solves Einstein’s God equation. As she approaches a solution, the fabric of the universe begins to unravel and all existence will end. Ragged is bombarded by horrible headaches and despair.

Playwright Bossen does not resolve this extended plotline, perhaps because it is the result of psychosis and, thus, was all delusion anyway. Whatever. She thankfully drops it in the second act as she focuses on the real story: Lisa’s love, guilt, and shame.

The fourth and final character is May, Lisa’s southern mom who is supposedly the source of Lisa’s guilt and shame. Played with strong maternal instincts by Sarah Holt, May has real compassion for her confused and struggling daughter. She does whatever she can to help her through her pain. Ironically, she knows nothing about the suicide of her daughter’s lover and, when she does find out, we discover no homophobia.

Jenny Donovan and Heidi Fortune. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Jenny Donovan and Heidi Fortune. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

We discover instead that the shame and guilt is Lisa’s not her mother’s.

Directed by Patrick Pearson, with dramaturgical assistance by Fareed Mostoufi, Blue Straggler takes on themes well worth the risk. And its use of string-theory as the new afterlife is appropriate to its lead character’s disposition.

Yet, as it now stands, this “multi-verse” afterlife comes across as a bit too whimsical for the play’s otherwise serious subject matter.

In fact, perhaps Blue Straggler behaves too much like its lead character’s own tendency to avoid hard truths with ever more indulgent mathematics.

Perhaps, Bossen just needs to throw away the smoke and show us Lisa and Clarissa’s love, show us their passion, show us their universe forever changed, and then changed again in death and guilt and shame, and let us watch where the pieces fly.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.

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Blue Straggler plays through this Sunday, June 28, 2015 at The Source Festival at Source – 1835 14th St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.