What’s the difference between an escape artist and a prisoner serving a sentence? One can emerge from confinement at will; the other may never be released or released only when others allow it. And what about escaping your own struggles or loosening the bonds of a confining relationship? That’s more complicated.
Jeanine Durning layers all these ideas of enclosure and restraint in her gripping out of the kennel and into a home, beginning with a prologue on the street outside the theater. Inside a large white rented truck, Rachel Lozoff and Molly Poerstel truss up Andrea Johnston. As she stands on a stool, they wind white strips around her, binding her legs and ankles together and anchoring her to the insides of the truck. She’s hanging, arms outspread, as the vehicle drives away. The back door descends, revealing the painted words: “The Simple Escape.”
While we sit in the theater waiting for the show to start, mellow crooners from the 1940s and ’50s serenade us with songs of love and difficulty amid the crackle of scratched records (part of Jules Maxwell’s potent live-mixed score). But there’s no easy love here—of self or others. Durning braids several strands into a piece that’s comic, touching, and terrifying: Lozoff and Poerstel are a fiercely perky pair, part Siamese twins, part rival cheerleaders. Playwright Keith Reddin functions as a kind of interlocutor, reading passages of text, but also stumblebumming across in a dogged sort of Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo. It is he who first reads aloud a touching letter that purports to be from a long-ago prisoner, addressed to “My Dear One,” and he who first explains how to escape when tied to a chair in a sitting position. Johnston interacts only with herself and the terrible inner ties that bind her. Durning and Joseph Poulson have another story and a long duet that is the core of the work.
Lozoff and Poerstel make their appearance stepping up and down the aisles in rhythms they emphasize with verbal “dah dahs” and slowly part the curtains just enough to give us a brief glimpse of Johnston, a tortured headliner whose accompaniment is an infant’s squall. Face to face, the pair—Lozoff in skimpy red, Poerstal in skimpy blue (costumes by Naoko Nagata)—embark on a monosyllabic conversation with gestures, interchanging “you” and “me” with escalating speed and volume to highly comical and scary effect. They’re perfectly attuned at first in their bold and lively side-by-side chorus “numbers,” but in their various later appearances, chanting becomes screaming, and dancing lashes them into tantrums. They get very tired, very sweaty, their breathing the only sound in the theater. Sometimes the watchful Reddin gets in their way; they don’t like that. While Maxwell plays what could be music for a genteel tea party, they lift and drag him by the neck, their fingers tight.
Durning and Poulson look limp, emptied, as they sit on chairs in a tiny “room” (by Durning and Nathan Heverin). It’s built of four moveable corners—each one half scrim, half flowered wallpaper. They gradually move these farther apart, but whatever the actual distance, the separation of these two people appears vast. (At one point, in a brilliant stroke, Maxwell submerges the deep, rhythmic voice of Edith Sitwell, reading one of her poems from Facade, in a fog of sound, the words as indistinguishable as a distant memory.) When Durning and Poulson engage, they’re rusty at being tender, nuzzle in uncomfortable ways. Standing on a chair, doubled over, he recites the “dear one” letter in a protracted groan. She picks him up without altering his stance and lugs him to a new spot. They wrestle via a sheet they’re perhaps trying to fold. She dances a devastating solo as if she can barely hold herself together; periodically he soothes her. Finally, in the course of licking his face, she draws a red ribbon from his mouth with hers and backs away until he has to let go of his end and fall. Then she stands there and munches the whole thing into her mouth. The piece ends with Johnston performing a long agonizing solo on the floor, like a failed escape artist who can’t wriggle out of her bondage, while Reddin runs back and forth and the curtain slowly, slowly closes.
Durning’s understanding of human behavior extends to her colleagues and is reinforced by them in this powerfully revealing work. Together she and Poulson are a wonder. Durning herself is an extraordinary performer—strong, vulnerable, utterly honest. She can break your heart just standing there.