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REVIEW: Disturbing Depths in Blackbird (Dark and Stormy)

Una (Sara Marsh) and Ray (Luverne Seifert)’s discomforting reunion in Dark & Stormy’s production of Blackbird. Photo by Rick Spaulding.

It’s been a decade since Blackbird took home London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play. The current staging by Dark & Stormy Productions, now playing at the Grain Belt Warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis, shows that David Harrower’s play has lost none of its power to engross, engage, and disturb.

For plot reasons that have much in common with The Nether, this is a play for mature, adult audiences, on account of its subject matter and graphic sexual discussions. Beyond that disclosure, a specific exploration of the plot details would undermine one of the script’s salient features, which is the audience’s race to assemble a sketch and chronology of past events from the scattered details tossed out by Una (Sara Marsh) and Ray (Luverne Seifert). There are past wrongs, recriminations, accusations, and denials, with layers that unravel and unspool in twists and turns as you question the veracity of what you hear.

Anger, recrimination, accusation: Sarah Marsh (as Una) and Luverne Seifert (as Ray) in the taut drama Blackbird. Photo by Rick Spaulding.

“Intimate” has connotations that would be disquieting with the content matter; “up close and personal” is a better way to describe the presentation. Audiences sit in the round, often just feet away from the human drama playing out. The proximity invites close scrutiny of the actors’ faces, searching for clues, but also often forces you to choose who to look at when the actors are on opposite sides – do you want to focus on the action, or the reaction? What if you miss that twitch or shake that could show the difference between truth and deception? There is no easy escape for the characters in some of the most discomforting discussions imaginable. Marsh and Seifert sustain this tension through 80 uninterrupted minutes filled with rippling shades of anger, vulnerability, and questions about which way events will turn next.

As staged by director Michaela Johnson, there is a strong use of the venue’s warehouse past – much is made of its isolating expanse, of being part of a larger facility. Discounting this being Dark & Stormy’s regular home, the space would have been an excellent site-specific pick. The lighting cues are few but effective, the work of lighting designer Mary Shabatura, and the sound design by C. Andrew Mayer completes the sense of space. It’s a performance that you’re not likely to forget.

Dark & Stormy’s productions of Blackbird plays at the Grain Belt Warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis through January 5, 2019.

Basil Considine