To showcase its intern company, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati has annually contributed a show to the Fringe that features these young performers in scenes by established playwrights or self-written pieces on a particular theme. This year, with a talented set of interns — five 23-year-old women plus a director — they undertook a more coherent piece of theater that has truly paid off.
Working with local playwright Sarah Underwood for several months, the group is staging her script Gravesongs, an extremely coherent work written with these five actors in mind. But in truth, it’s a piece that could well have life on university campuses and for theaters with interns or other young performers.
The premise of Gravesongs is that we're listening in on monologues by young women who have died, not coincidentally, at the age of 23. The circumstances are a bit bizarre and maybe happenstance: a fall down a flight of stairs, an allergic reaction to a bee sting or an asthma attack, an unmotivated murder. These are interspersed with scenes involving friends and siblings who are finding their own ways to grieve, an unfamiliar emotion at such a tender age. (An extended scene of five women attending a funeral of an older man several of them were “involved” with is very amusing but somewhat off the theme that drives the rest of the script.)
Gravesongs is not morose: It has humor and youthful enthusiasm threaded throughout the hour-long performance. The characters are, by and large, not remorseful, but rather surprised that their lives have been cut short. They had imagined long lives and are bemused to be on an unexpected path.
When an actor is the center of a scene, she is typically dressed in white linen — pants and a blouse, a skirt or a dress. In such scenes, another performer plays her sympathetic but unspeaking headstone, dressed in a more formal black gown. It’s a subtle but effective convention.
Each performer has a chance to be the center of attention, and it’s clear that certain scenes were written because of the strengths and talent of the individual. Elizabeth L. Worley has a lovely singing voice, while Rachel Christianson is great at being the cynical realist. Lauren Shively shines as a high-strung griever, and Emily Eaton finds the necessary rage to portray the murder victim.
Especially memorable among equals is Rebecca Whatley as the grieving sister who wants to be left alone and as a member of a group of friends who is appalled when another friend holds onto their friend’s ashes rather than spreading them around Eden Park. (The script has several local references that add a nice touch of familiarity.)
Student director Elizabeth Maxwell provides a thoughtful note in the program, saying that the show does not offer answers but suggestions. In an hour’s time, each story leads us to wonder, “Why did she lead this life?” Her observations conclude, “We offer no answers. We are here, rather, to pose questions and to offer you possibilities. In the end, we invite you to simply believe. Believe anything you like. Believe everything you can. But please, please ‘please believe.’ ”
It’s a thought borne out beautifully through Underwood’s well-written script and the finely nuanced performances Maxwell has drawn from her intern colleagues. It’s one of the most sincere and engaging theatrical performances of the 2009 Fringe.
Performed at Ensemble Theatre through June 5. See performance dates and preview here.