Writer: Susan Soon He Stanton
Director: Tyler Mercer
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
For many New Yorkers, upstate—that place that seems to start somewhere around Westchester and extend all the way to the Canadian border—represents a place that is simultaneously magical and terrifying. Two hours or so north of the city and suddenly there’s no light pollution, no trash-lined sidewalks, no alternate-side parking, and no one to hear you scream. Live Source Theatre Group’s latest production, Susan Soon He Stanton’s Solstice Party!, directed by Tyler Mercer, follows a group of friends who gather for a weekend in the wilds of an unspecified location in upstate New York State. When the sun sets and they start to spill their secrets, the scenic forest quickly becomes threatening.
As the play opens, we encounter Andrew (Chris Ignacio) and his girlfriend Pipi (Phoebe Dunn) as they arrive at the home of Dominique (Patrick Andrew Jones) and Jo Ann (Satomi Blair). Tensions are running high between Andrew and Pipi and it’s not clear how they’ll manage to share the tent they’ve pitched outside of Dominique and Jo Ann’s house. Early on, Andrew leaves to visit his college friend Trish (Stephanie Weeks), who lives nearby with her wife and their new baby. This leaves plenty of time for Pipi to learn all about Dominique, Jo Ann, their past, their passion for farming, the dangerous lake on their property, and the ashram next door. She eventually meets Stan (Michael Vitaly Sazonov), formerly of the ashram, who now lives in the woods around Dominique and Jo Ann’s farm. Everyone gathers for dinner (a pig raised on the ashram, much to vegetarian Pipi’s chagrin) and as they eat and later gather around the fire, they play music, share secrets, and eventually reveal the sinister nature of their ashram neighbors. The more they discuss the ashram, the more it seems to present a threat, as Stan reveals secrets about its leader Peggy (voiced by Shannon Haddock) and Ashley (Hallie Hadara), the girl he left behind there. When the sun comes up the next day, it’s not fully clear what was real, what was a hallucination, or what the truth really is.
Solstice Party! calls itself a “Jonestown parable for the Trump era”, but there’s nothing that makes it more of the Trump era than the Obama era or even the Bush or Clinton eras. It feels much more like The Big Chill gone horribly wrong than anything else. Though the acting is strong (particularly Satomi Blair’s Jo Ann), there’s a lot of awkward exposition that makes the play feel overstuffed. There’s some good original music by Adrian Bridges, but its inclusion isn’t always organic to the narrative, particularly when Pipi announces that she and Trish, who don’t know each other, “want to sing a song.” The last quarter of the play, when the ashram’s residents become a literal rather than theoretical threat, is jumbled and contrived; when Pipi wakes up the next morning uncertain of what is real and what isn’t, it’s not hard to understand her confusion.
Bryce Cultler’s scenic design and Mary Ellen Stubbins’s lighting do a fine job of transporting us to the forest, but they aren’t enough to save us from weak plotting and dialogue. Stanton’s script is rooted in strong ideas—it addresses friendship and exclusion, reality and hallucination, the lure of the cult and the power of self-loathing. Unfortunately, the execution of those ideas doesn’t quite meet their ambition.
Runs until 19 November 2017 | Image: Mark Davis