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'Stay'

by Carmel Morgan

November 12, 2011 -- Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC

Suppose someone told you that they planned to produce an evening-length work combining music, dance, theater, and SLAM (slide animation movie) multimedia focusing on, as the press release states, “the issue of impermanence and all the ways we long for things, people, and life to simply ‘stay.’” Would you think they were being overly ambitious, maybe biting off more than they could chew? And if you were asked to be involved in such a production, given the myriad of genres involved and its deeply philosophical bent, would you fear for its success?

One has to give credit to Heather McDonald and Susan Shields, theater and dance professors, respectively, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, for being brave enough to go forward with their jointly conceived idea and to their collaborators for joining them in their quest. McDonald, the Artistic Associate of George Mason’s professional theater-in-residence, Theater of the First Amendment; an MFA graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts; and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, wrote and directed “Stay,” while Shields, a former member of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, among others; and a winner of the 2006 Choo-San Goh Award for Choreography, did the choreography. With that very talented duo at the helm, you might feel better about their chances. Then add an assortment of skilled actors, dancers, and technical staff, plus the help of Gregory Crane, a Bay Area photographer and animator, and you might think they could actually pull it off.

I wish I could report that after all their obvious hard work, “Stay” came close to achieving what McDonald and Shields dreamed. Aiming sky high sometimes results in falling fall far short. Certainly “Stay” had its enjoyable moments, but overall it came across rather muddled. The performance seemed to drag on, and the jumbling of dance, drama, and video projections left me wondering where to look a lot of the time, unable to follow the meandering plot.

The stage was filled with scattered suitcases, upturned chairs, and stones. Costumes consisted of casual outfits in beachy colors, often accompanied by baggy sweaters with holes clipped in them. Characters wandered in and out, and it was not always easy to identify the relationships among them.

The overall theme may have been impermanence, but “Stay” felt preachy to me, like a play for members of a church youth group. It’s possible to having a life-affirming message without including God and Jesus and stories from the Bible, but in “Stay” the religious content came on strong. So strong, in fact, that it might be off-putting to non-Christians. Also included was a long, detailed discussion about the chambered nautilus, and a tale of someone catching a falling man whose parachute failed (a miracle!), which seemed to have religious overtones as well.

For the most part, I didn’t feel that the dancing improved the drama, or that the drama improved the dancing, or that these elements were integrated well. It seems preferable that dancers do the dancing, and actors do the acting, but in “Stay” everyone did at least a little of both, to varying effect. In my opinion, Laura Urgellés, a native of Cuba and a recently retired principal dancer from The Washington Ballet, was the best at navigating the acting and dancing. Urgellés is a wonderful and expressive dancer, but as an actress she did a surprisingly admirable job. Her scenes relating a love story and the tragedy of miscarriage were among Stay’s most compelling. Images of Urgellés letting loose long scarves from around her waist vividly captured the pain of losing an unborn child. Shields’s choreography, along with the heartfelt performance of Urgellés, triumphed here.

Crane’s outstanding SLAM work contributed to another of the best sequences in “Stay.” Projected on a huge screen behind the performers, a series of phrases were written out on paper, then crumpled. This was one of the few times in “Stay” where the music, movement, and sentiment all seemed in sync and complimented each other.

McDonald’s writing had high points, too, especially in some of the drunken pub banter. Yet, on the whole, the language tended to get schmaltzy and to be full of trite expressions. Frequently, I felt the characters were reading from a book of inspirational quotes, life lessons, and sermons. “We’re all dying. Some of us just get there faster.” “People can make you unhappy, too.” “The only constant is within.” “Christmas is the darkest night of the year.” “Can anyone ever really save anyone?”

Again, I applaud the effort, but for me, “Stay” amounted to merely a succession of bits and ideas, and not an entertaining cohesive whole. McDonald and Shields ponder the sorts of things most artists ponder, but they don’t really bring new light to their subject and they definitely don’t reach any resolution. Thus, unfortunately, “Stay” does not stick.

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