Flux Theatre Ensemble
When departing from The Gym at Judson after the opening night performance of Menders, written by Erin Browne and directed by Heather Cohn, I was acutely aware that I had just witnessed real theater. I know this to be true when a particular mood/mindset overtakes me at the conclusion of a play. Although it will eventually diminish, though not entirely, I want that mood/mindset to last forever. Menders moved me to question what it is to be a human being against the backdrop of the bigger or biggest issues that confront us.
Maudlin as it may sound, real theater such as Menders compels me to endeavor to be ever more compassionate, understanding, and kind as I go forward into whatever life has in store. That, for me, is the ultimate purpose of theater. Interim purposes (such as “entertainment”) have their place, and far be it from me to declare that all theater must deeply profound. I can enjoy being lightly amused or horrified just like the next person. Perhaps the variety of theatrical presentations is necessary, so that when something comes along that strikes a mighty chord, it can be clearly discerned by the contrast.
Erin Browne’s inspiration for her play was Robert Frost’s 1914 metaphorical poem Mending Walls, which at times has been a mainstay of required high school reading. Ms. Browne elevates the poem’s metaphors in her story of a wall being painstakingly maintained by a government in some dystopian future. Corey (Sol Marina Crespo) and her cousin Aimes (Isaiah Tanenbaum) are fresh out of The Academy, where they have been trained for three years to be “menders,” patrolling the wall, looking for any breach or need for repair, performing rigid procedures for documenting such breaches, and requisitioning repairs. They are young and on first their assignment, for which they worked so very hard to be qualified. They want to do the job right, by the book. Their trainer for this initial job is Drew (Matt Archambault), a long-term mender who has something bubbling under his bonhomie and a history that some workers have been nattering about (the details of which are only implied). Drew says that the job is mostly boring, and to fill the time tells two running stories that are played out before them. One story is fantastical (featuring Mike Mihm and Vivia Font); the other (with Ingrid Nordstrom and Raushanah Simmons) about life prior to the war and the construction of the wall. Suddenly in flash forward, Corey is on trial, but she does not know the charge. She chatters nervously before those judging her. We flash back, we flash forward. We witness the relationship among Corey, Aimes, and Drew take shape, and change shape. Lines from the poem Mending Walls are spoken apart from the action, and incanted at irregular intervals.
Witnessing Menders is akin to watching an artist painting on canvas. Ms. Browne is painting with words, sequences, stories, gestures, sounds, the wall segments moving, closing, reopening…. We are shown elements of the final rendering, and are drawn to pay close attention, as the blank areas of the canvas are filled in according to a sequence the artist reveals. Some parts of the canvas are light, others dark. What will be the completed picture show? This is the mystery, the solving of which we await. We will eventually see the completed work.
The action of the play, shifting among its various elements, evokes hard examination of issues such as friendship, living in a totalitarian state, devotion, duty, working at a job, a physical wall, walls between humans. Ultimately, we all may be asking, as Robert Frost did in his poem:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.
The actors in Menders are consistently excellent. Heather Cohn’s direction is fluid and propels the momentum of the play. Cory Rodriguez’s spare set is well used and all that is needed. Both Asa Wembers’s sound design and Trevor James Martin’s videos work to keep us alert.
Now, a full twenty-four hours since the curtain came down on Menders, the pleasing contemplative spell it evoked still lingers. Menders, in my estimation, is a rare event: true theatrical art. - Jay Reisberg
Shown: Isaiah Tanenbaum, Matt Archambault, Sol Marina Crespo