Theater Review: ASP’s Powerful “God’s Ear” — The Poetics of Grief

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s superb production of God’s Ear honors this beautiful text.

God’s Ear by Jenny Schwartz. Directed by Thomas Derrah. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at The Davis Square Theatre, Somerville, MA, through April 12.


An agonizing moment between Mel (Tamara Hickey) and Ted (Gabriel Kuttner) in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “God’s Ear.” Photo: Stratton McCrady Photography.

By Ian Thal

The name suggests the company’s mission. Actors’ Shakespeare Project is dedicated to presenting the canonical works of the Bard, with occasional forays into presenting the repertoire of Shakespeare’s contemporaries or classic dramatists of other eras. On those rare occasions that ASP stages the work of contemporary playwrights, the choices have not been standard fare.

In the case of ASP’s production of God’s Ear, the reasons for the departure are clear. Jenny Schwartz’s script was selected (at least in part) because, like the Bard, she treats dramatic literature as poetry. However, while Shakespeare’s verse explores the possibilities of language, Schwartz’s poetics (indeed a theme of her play) is focussed the limitations of language, the impossibility of communication.

God’s Ear revolves around family members struggling to deal with the accidental drowning of ten-year-old Sam. In the ASP’s production, we see Mel (Tamara Hickey), the mother, dressed in her pajamas and a bathrobe, frantically pedaling on a stationary bicycle as she breathlessly recounts her excruciating experience in the emergency room, trying to make sense of what the doctors are telling her. Ted (Gabriel Kuttner) is on the other end of a cellphone call. He is somewhere in transit, running between hotel rooms, airports, and cab rides to and from home, his baggage following him in a wheeled suitcase. Mel and Ted have no doubt lost count of the number of times they have recounted that horrific day in the hospital.

Lanie, their six-year-old daughter (Josephine Elwood), knows how her brother has died and is trying to understand her mom and dad’s strange coping strategies. Perhaps her innocence and emotional directness provides her with resilience in the face of catastrophe. She looks forward to her next birthday, next Halloween, and next Christmas, while her mother cannot imagine those celebrations ever occurring again.

On a psychological level, Schwartz’s drama explores “post-traumatic stress disorder,” but through a phenomenon that Freudians call “repetition compulsion,” in which affected individuals (in one way or another) actively repeat their traumas again and again in dreams, rituals, and compulsive behavior.

Ted circles the world in what seems to be an endless cycle of international business trips, ferried along by the “transvestite air stewardess” (John Kuntz). He drinks excessively on planes and in hotel lounges. Along the way Ted meets other emotionally broken people, such as Guy (Dave Rich), a swinging barfly who goes in for the kind of drunken displays of machismo seen in 1970s sitcoms, and Lenora (Marianna Bassham), a possible high school chum of Mel with whom he has sex. Whether in bars or in hotel beds, these characters seek a momentary euphoria that will allow them to forget their grief, a brief intimacy that is easily forgotten. It makes sense that Lenora and Guy sing a karaoke duet about being trapped in the ‘underworld’ – the denizens of this lounge, which is dedicated to repressing pain, have all lost children. Mel tolerates Ted’s philandering, perhaps because she understands that his sleeping around prevents him from being swallowed up by the emptiness that also threatens her – indeed, a coded conversation about “the electrician” hints that she might be engaged in similar and equally stereotypical dalliances.

Mel finally starts to move beyond her trauma as she listens to the advice of Tooth Fairy (Ann Carpenter) and GI Joe (Kuntz, again), one of Sam’s many action figures who help her reconnect with Lanie.

Schwartz’s poetry, like her characters, is defined by repetition: phrases, exchanges, idiomatic expressions, even clichés, recur – yet somehow repetition gives stale articulations new meanings. The play’s jagged language reflects its characters’ psychological struggles: are they are trapped in an unchanging loop or are they moving forward? Words change their meaning: sometimes they serve as private code (Mel often speaks of “the dog” when discussing her emotional life, yet it appears the family did have a dog at one point). At other times their use of language reflects a desire to apply a name to something they dare not or cannot name, a desire for something that someone does not want (or stays well out of reach), or a cliché that is simultaneously both true and utterly unsatisfying. God’s ear is present by inference – only He can hear the ineffable healing word.

Those familiar with Thomas Derrah’s performances know him to be a physically imaginative performer; his capacity for seeing how a text can generate a distinctive choreography is very much in evidence in his work as a director. In the post-show talk-back, the actors noted how Derrah (who was not present at the performance I attended) encouraged them to experiment, yet the end result of this inventive tinkering, despite its seemingly ad-hoc nature, ended up coming across with the surreal efficiency of a Rube Goldberg machine. And this precision ends up heightening the emotional resonance generated by the connections between text and performance. Obviously, Derrah needs to direct more often.

Not surprisingly, the cast is top notch, not just technically, but in their emotional investment in the play. Hickey and Kuttner, even in God’s Ear‘s most stylized moments, give compelling portraits of grief-stricken parents, while Elwood’s nuanced depiction of the emotional life of a very bright six-year old almost makes one forget she’s an adult. Likewise, the supporting cast manage to find the acute tragedy in their often comic turns: Rich is wonderfully vulgar as Guy, while Bassham’s off-kilter drunken wobbling as the giddily libidinous Lenora is not merely funny but dead-on symptomatic of the character’s loss and self-destruction. Kuntz’s measured calm as the flight attendant and his hyper-macho confidence as GI Joe are perfectly calibrated, whether he’s giving a safety demonstration on an airplane or displaying the limited range of motion of an action figure’s plastic joints. Carpenter does a fine turn as the Tooth Fairy – seamlessly shifting from magical grandmother figure to cosmic bureaucrat in charge of incisor and bicuspid exchange.

Cristina Todesco’s stage design is brilliant. The stage is covered in translucent tarps, suggesting the way gardeners protect their bulbs in the winter months. It evokes the garden box where Mel and Lanie bury Sam’s action figures, a second, symbolic funeral for the lost child. Tedesco also covers furniture (Mel’s exercise bike) and props (Ted’s suitcase) in plastic cling wrap as if they are going to be placed in long term storage. Yet the most remarkable part of the set design is the large panoramic window that serves as the stage entrance. The opening plays a number of different roles in the production: it is the hotel lounge bar and the cramped passenger cabin of the airplane. But the window can also look like a screen, at times suggesting letter-box film close-ups, such as showing Ted’s legs as he walks through the airport with his baggage in tow, or changing in his hotel room.

Edward Young composes memorable musical settings for Schwartz’s lyrics. His stylistic range stretches from the avant-pop of Lanie’s song and the flight attendant’s safety instructions to the avant-funk of the Tooth Fairy’s tune and the resigned karaoke acts of Lenore and Guy. Costumer Gail Astrid Buckley dresses Mel, Ted, and Lanie in neutral whites, light greys, and beiges, supplying only faint hints of color or patterns. She gives the play’s more fanciful characters stronger colors: The Tooth Fairy’s blue hat and wings, the rich greens of the flight attendant’s uniform, plastic hair for GI Joe, and Lenore’s archetypical red lounge dress.

Many Boston area theaters often take the easy way out, producing New England premieres of uninspired work that only found its way into the new play “pipeline” by virtue (or luck) of having premiered in New York and gotten not utterly terrible reviews in the New York Times. God’s Ear is precisely the sort of vital work that dignifies our local stage — ASP’s superb production honors this beautiful text. Boston audiences owe Kuntz a debt of gratitude, not just for his performance in this production, but for having advocated for this script ever since he caught its 2007 premiere staging in New York (a playwright as well, Kuntz’s Hotel Nepenthe contains some interesting parallels with God’s Ear). Thankfully, the actor had ASP’s ear.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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