Critic's Pick: ‘Dragon Play’ at Know Theatre

The fiery and poetic show has parallel threads: A teenage boy falls in love with a dragon girl 301 years his senior, while a woman's marriage is tested by a dragon ex-lover.

Feb 1, 2017 at 11:42 am

click to enlarge Claron Hayden and Torie Wiggins in "Dragon Play" - Photo: Dan R. Winters
Photo: Dan R. Winters
Claron Hayden and Torie Wiggins in "Dragon Play"
You probably haven’t heard of Jenny Connell Davis, whose 2012 show, Dragon Play, is receiving its regional premiere at Know Theatre. She’s a rising playwright whose work is just the kind we often find onstage at Know, a theater that likes to take risks on shows that push boundaries. If they happen to be by women, that’s even better — and Know’s Associate Artistic Director Tamara Winters has a deft touch with staging such works. 

Dragon Play has parallel threads that steadily interweave and eventually interlock. One seems more earthbound: On a lonely snowbound farm in northern Minnesota, a woman (Torie Wiggins) and her husband (Paul Strickland) lead a mundane, relatively uneventful existence. She’s a librarian and he’s a building contractor; they have a son. She seems regretful and perhaps dissatisfied with her life, but we aren’t given much context — at least not at first. She begins to tell a story — “Once upon a time” — that might be her own or might be a fairytale. 

That second story is of a young boy (Josh Reiter) who stumbles upon a wounded “Dragon Girl” (Kearston Hawkins-Johnson) on the hot plains of Texas. She fascinates him and they become friends, despite their age difference — he’s 11, she’s 312. As he becomes an adolescent and interested in a more serious relationship, their trans-species differences make progress a challenge: she says he must learn to fly; she departs periodically and returns to find him growing older. Dragon-time and human-time do not coincide. 

In Minnesota, the woman has an unexpected visitor, another dragon (Claron Hayden), apparently a lover from her past who she describes as “six-foot-one and soulful and looking like sex dipped in Sumatran chocolate.” Her husband is dismayed, threatened and quickly defensive, sensing that this strange guest who raises the temperature of the space he inhabits might be the source of his wife’s ennui. For years, she has received postcards from exotic places with messages about “Bangalore and bureaucrats and the Yangtze,” and her husband, already anxious about the state of his marriage, senses a serious challenge.

Neither the Dragon Girl nor the unexpected dragon is a visibly mythological beast. The actors are dressed in black leather; he wears motorcycle boots. But both move with slinky, reptilian grace — and they occasionally resort to non-human behaviors, breathing fire or spreading wings suggested by lighting and sound effects, not literally shown. Drawing on the audience’s imagination makes their fantastic presence all the more dramatic.

Davis’ poetic script initially feels a tad impenetrable until you get your bearings. Why are these stories juxtaposed in this 75-minute work? Why do characters called dragons not look like dragons? (Dragon Girl tells the boy, “Humans only see what they understand.”) But her precise, descriptive writing begins to reveal linkages. Minor details — drawing circles on the ground, “mechanical difficulties” — bleed from one story to the other. And then the stories of loss and yearning, of settling and wondering, begin to coalesce and focus more clearly. By the play’s end, pieces fall into place.

This might sound serious, and that’s certainly Davis’ principal motive. But Dragon Play has moments of humor. Strickland plays the husband with dry frustrated wit and astute timing. Hayden’s dragon has an arch air and quipping delivery that make him both attractive and dangerous. Wiggins brings genuine humanity to the woman caught between memory and practicality, questioning choices made and the implications of their results. 

Know’s upstairs performance space is reconfigured, with three rows of seating backing up to the north wall. That spreads the performance lengthwise, with a mundane farmhouse kitchen at stage left and the spare Texas plain with a stone outcropping at stage right. Andrew Hungerford, Know’s artistic director and a scenic and lighting designer, has created an environment suited to these stories. With Winters’ sensitive direction and a skilled cast, Dragon Play is a low-key, thoughtful and exquisitely evocative piece of theater.

DRAGON PLAY continues through Feb. 18. More info/tickets: