Review: ‘Surfacing’ at Expats Theatre Depicts the Desperation of the Displaced

Three captive characters in search of a plot.

It isn’t every day you see a play that merges Becket and Martha Graham. That’s my takeaway from watching the hybrid form of Surfacing play out at the Atlas: Three actors are strictly circumscribed in separate spaces—like Becketian characters stuck in trash cans. Unseen and unheard by one another, they speak in abstract fragments about their lives in extremis: displaced, dispossessed, in danger. The play’s subtitle, An Inventory of Helplessness, sums it up.

Intermittently (and unaccountably), the actors step out of their bounds—rectangles outlined on the black floor in white—and solo wordlessly about the playing area in Graham-y interpretive dance. Then back into their confines they go. Then back to the dance floor. And so on.

Nichole Chimere (A), Greg Ongao (C), and Christine Jacobs (B) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

A brand-new company named Expats Theatre, founded by Karin Rosnizeck, makes its DC debut with the U.S. premiere of Surfacing, directed resourcefully by Rosnizeck, who also translated the text from German. The script by Russian-Austrian author Julya Rabinowich has three characters in captivity, designated A, B, and C. A program note helpfully explains their backstories, which the nonlinear storytelling takes a while to get to: An anguished Nichole Chimere plays A, a refugee; she’s cooped up stage right with only a cot. Centerstage is B, a kidnap victim imprisoned for eight years played agilely by Christine Jacobs; she’s literally boxed in a black carton. Stage left is C, a young man played ably by Greg Ongao who seeks justice but risks vengeance on his life if he leaves his apartment; he has but a stool to stand on and righteously rail from.

Their free-associational language is syntactically in shards that are left to us to piece together:

Nichole Chimere (A) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

A: Waves
C: Then I have faith again. Again and again,
B: Then I believe again that it’ll be over soon.
A: just a little while –
C: then it will be over. Promise.
B: he said, promised. But it wasn’t over.
C: Nothing but fucking lies. It will never be over.
B: because he never kept his promises, only kept me locked up, so I kept promising it all to myself.
A: who can be so stupid as to believe all this, only me I guess, only me…
C: maybe next year, that would be great, next year –
A: just a few more months, you can do it, just these few months, and then –

Nothing changes for them. A waits for G. C waits for J. But no one comes. They stay put. It is a familiar Becketian trope, and as a metaphor for the stasis of these characters’ respective crises, it is curiously apt.

Christine Jacobs (B) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

Rosnizek has modulated the actors’ volume, conducting them like a spoken-word trio sometimes solitarily staccato and sometimes in sync. They never connect with anyone. We the audience become their only witness, and truth to tell we too are lost. We get the passion of their intent without evident sense. We observe their intensely performed feelings, which lack cogent narrative context so they do not resonate or land. It is as though the three captives are abandoned, including by us. We become default players in an existential metaphor for the unmoved and unempathic. And so it is that Expats Theatre’s subversive Surfacing challenges our presumption that for outsiders’ suffering to be valid we must vicariously feel it too.

Greg Ongao (C) in ‘Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness.’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

Diverting choreography (interpolated into the otherwise static script) is by Erica Rebollar, who has devised arresting abstract tableaux, such as B’s intriguing play of hands against her bare, bent-over back, and A’s hurling himself against a wall. Expressive music and sound design for for the movement passages is by composers Charlie Campagna (for A and C) and Jeff Dorfman (for B).

The lighting by Ian Claar conveys a fitting claustrophobia, from which visually refreshing projections (uncredited) offer respite (and a chainlink and barbwire reality check). Much drama and emotional momentum come from Johnny Dahm Robertson’s propulsive sound design, which samples roaring waves, chirping birds, rolling thunder, and preshow prerecorded snippets from the splintered script we’re about to hear.

According to its website, Expats Theatre “is devoted to connecting people across cultures through theatre and the performing arts.” Ironically (and no doubt unintentionally), its first full production exemplifies and elicits disconnection.

Except that who knew Becket and Martha Graham could get along?

Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.

Surfacing: An Inventory of Helplessness runs through September 29, 2019, at Expats Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab One, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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