For a stylized drama, “The Cataract” is mostly down to earth. Save for some metaphor running rampant in Act II, this play about the deep and mysterious bond between people is a fecund production that stretches the minimalism of both the stage and language to its most affecting high.
“The Cataract” is the story of two families in Minnesota, circa the late 19th century, who have come together through the necessity of circumstance. Dan and Dinah are free-spirited travelers from the South, come to board with the puritanical Cyrus and Lottie. Lottie is unhappy with having to share their home with these “commoners” (especially Dinah, who may very well be the first Hippie), whereas Cyrus seems thrilled by Dan’s electric energy, and for his assistance on the bridge that he is helping to build across the Mississippi. As it turns out, the explanation for all this unrest is simple: both Cyrus and Lottie love Dan, and no matter how they cling to routine, they can’t escape the constant hammering of their thoughts. Katie Pearl, the director, and Lisa D’Amour, the author, have found a perfect expression for this in the sequential storytelling: every “day” begins with a cock’s crow and then layers scenes atop one another as the tension steadily builds through breakfast, work, and dinner, often culminating in a revelatory dream sequence.
The dialogue itself also follows a tightly wound pattern, often repeating itself in the effort to take only the essence of what is necessary. D’Amour succeeds in this (although a great deal of credit belongs to the cast), and the words become larger than life, adorned simply with subtext. These basic, matter-of-fact phrases are also brutally effective upon the stripped set (all plain wood, cut to resemble objects), as it pares away all distractions. It also gives the charming impression that these people are desperately trying to convince themselves of things they do not feel or cannot express.
Of course, this conventional trick would grow stifling, even from the most seasoned of actors (and this cast is incredible), so D’Amour also frequents the metaphorical. This is fine for the first act, where the expressions stick to creatively staged dream sequences. It even helps to illuminate where these characters are coming from. But when that line is crossed in the second act—at one point Dinah pulls an iris (the flower) from her iris (the eye)—a lot of the solid foundation she has built up dissolves into the inexplicable. I admire D’Amour’s lack of explanations, but in my confusion, I can’t help resenting her, too. “It’s funny how mysterious things start making sense,” is one of the lines in the play, but it’s a bit hypocritical.
I’ve spoken parenthetically about the cast so far, so let me acknowledge them here. Vanessa Aspillaga, who plays Dinah, the least plausible of the characters, manages to find a commonality with the role that makes us instantly sympathize. Barnaby Carpenter (Cyrus) manages to capture the churning tide of passion, blossoming from a repressed to confident man, and Tug Coker, as Dan, is one of those charismatic actors who draws out the best in everyone, most of all, himself. As for Kelly McAndrew: she should never be out of a theater. As Lottie, she constantly swerves between dynamics (particularly in her erotic fantasies), and manages to put so much into a single word—heck, even into a lengthy silence—that I’m tempted to produce a play that has her simply reading from the dictionary. And while I’ve already lauded the writer and director, I can’t stress enough how much crystal-clear imagery the two have managed to put on such a simplistic stage, nor how effective it is.
“The Cataract” is not a perfect show, for in the second act, variety does lead to insanity. But this dazzling madness, so marvelously captured on stage, is a beautiful thing, too, and much as I love being grounded on the earth, it also feels great to be swept away.
Julia Miles Theater (424 West 55th Street)
Tickets: $52.00 (212-239-6200)
Schedule: Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:00 & Saturday @ 3:00
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.