Fascinating Ambiguity

Playhouse's 'Blackbird' lets you draw your own conclusions

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A provocative play can take you to places you don’t expect, says Michael Evan Haney, assistant artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for seven seasons. That’s exactly what happened to him and what he expects will grab audiences who come to see David Harrower’s Blackbird, opening this week at the Playhouse.

It’s a new work, winner of London’s Olivier Award for best play in 2006 (besting the formidable competition of Frost/Nixon and Tom Stoppard’s Rock & Roll) and a hit at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club in March 2007.

It’s just two people — Una is in her mid-twenties and Ray in his mid-fifties. After 15 years, Una has located Ray to confront him about an illegal sexual relationship that had put him in prison. The entire story occurs in a trash-littered lunchroom, a workplace where Ray is trying to put his life back together. But Una hasn’t been able to move on. Haney is staging the show with two actors new to Cincinnati audiences, Joy Farmer-Clary and John Ottavino.

According to Haney, Blackbird looks at the aftermath of a terrible event.

“How do people go on with their lives?” he asks. “How does an illegal relationship affect both parties? We have very clear and definite ideas about such things, but this play will shake up some of those ideas.”

Haney missed seeing the show in London in 2006, but subsequently read it and urged Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern to include it in the current season, where it will appear on the Shelterhouse stage.

Haney is impressed with Harrower’s writing.

“He doesn’t tip things,” he says. “He keeps everything neutral, so it really engages the audience and forces them to decide. They have to watch what’s happening in front of them and make a decision about what these events mean.”

Haney says Harrower’s script is unusual, a kind of free verse.

“I’ve never read dialogue that’s so ultra-realistic,” he says. “These two characters are trying to communicate very precisely with each other. They start a sentence, stop, change a word, start again, parse it, keep going. Every time there’s a break in thought, it’s a new line. It’s a challenge for actors to learn, but it’s pretty amazing when you hear it. They not only interrupt one another — they interrupt themselves. More than any other play I’ve ever worked on, it sounds like you’re in the middle of a real conversation.”

The story of Blackbird could be about villain and victim, but Haney says that’s not how it plays.

“How much each one was at fault for what happened is a fundamental question,” Haney says. “In a way, it’s a perverse kind of love story. What happened was that they got caught because each one thought the other one had betrayed them. The exploration of that dynamic and the story of what actually happened gives a new insight to each character. We see that their lives can be changed and perhaps proceed in a different direction.”

Haney and designer Kevin Rigdon have created a set that turns audiences into eavesdroppers, looking into a gritty room where the pair struggles to understand a life-changing event. Harrower’s script presents the story objectively.

“What I love about the play,” Haney says, “is that it leaves it in the hands of the audience to say what’s going on here, to understand what happened. Who do you believe? Who do you not believe?”

It’s a fascinating ambiguity.

Haney is an all-purpose director for the Playhouse, typically staging three productions annually, including A Christmas Carol (which he’s been part of for its entire 18-year run, serving as its director for many years). Last fall he directed Lovesong on the Playhouse’s Marx stage. He also has directed for Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, most recently staging Souvenir with actress Neva Rae Powers in 2007.

In March, he’ll again put together the show about the tone-deaf singer for St. Louis Repertory Theatre. In April for the Westport County Playhouse in Connecticut, he’ll restage Around the World in 80 Days, a production he directed in Cincinnati last spring then took to New York City’s Irish Repertory Theatre for a summer run that was extended several times.

“I love variety,” Haney says. “It’s really fun working on a comedy — and then it’s more fun working on a really difficult drama. Variety is the spice of life. If I worked on the same kind of show all the time, I’d burn out really quickly. Working on a play as difficult and challenging and dark as Blackbird, we have to have some fun in the rehearsal process, so we make jokes. We can laugh, but then go right into it.”

It’s a lot like life.

BLACKBIRD, presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, opens Thursday and continues through March 8. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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