The Narrowing, Archipelago Theatre's latest, concerns itself mostly with events that threaten our civilization and species: two from our past, and two that may well figure in our future. Still, for subject matter so grim, its conclusions are improbably light.
Director Ellen Hemphill and co-writer Nor Hall do this through extensive collaboration with filmmaker Jim Haverkamp. His video design dominates Jan Chambers' layered set in the last part of this work, after providing counterpoint earlier; his sepia-toned dramatic footage forms the play's first full act.
But as they zero in on various endings, they somehow find new beginnings. The last sequence presages perhaps the biggest new beginning of all.
We'd anticipate challenges involving scope and depth in any work contemplating the possible end of civilization not once, but four times in 80 short minutes. How do you successfully depict landscapes as broad, or stakes as dire, as a world war or a continent ravaged by pestilence, and maintain the scale of the individual human? And in roughly 20 minutes apiece, how deep can our relationship go with the people we encounter?
Hemphill and Hall tackle the first issue with varying degrees of success by drastically narrowing their focus to two or three characters in each of The Narrowing's four scenes. Europe during the Black Death is reduced to a hilly country field where Agatha (Jane Holding) and her son Jack (Jay O'Berski) eke out a living. A local bishop (Tom Marriott) opposes Agatha's occasional success healing peasants with local plants and plans to denounce her as a witch.
But even with these actors' solid performances, the noticeably threadbare mise en scene, elliptical transitions and brief duration of this sequence barely gets their story told.
The second-most successful of the four sections relates the memories of Rachel, a Jewish woman who as a girl reached shelter in England thanks to the Kindertransport. Amid Haverkamp's locomotive footage and Jesse Belsky's atmospheric lights, Bonnie Raphael's narrator confesses a lifelong ambivalence about trains. In a subsequent scene, Lady Smythford (crisp Jamie Bell), a naïve and not particularly maternal young woman, attempts to construct a relationship with her hapless charge (young Sofia Ventimiglia).
In the third section, a pretty but problematic set and a compacted, melodramatic script impede the story of two scientists, brothers stationed on the world's last (and rapidly melting) icebergs.
An enigmatic and moving coda bears the title Coniunctio, a term Jung took from alchemy to describe the union of opposites to form a different psychological whole. Against a projected image that suggests a holodeck—or the last vestiges of human consciousness winking out on planet Earth—Alessandra Gaeta and Michael Oliver dance through an empty white environment.
As they do, characters, unseen at first, speak lovingly of a species in eclipse. As Alison Leyton-Brown covers Brian Eno's "By This River," we hear what might be the last voicings of our collective subconscious. One character says, "I loved being a woman," as footage of humans segues into that of underwater species, before they—and we?—fade to white, and then black.
Is this, then, the end? Or have Hemphill and Hall glimpsed the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth? Much like the civilization it stems from, The Narrowing goes through considerable rough ground before it delivers us into an unlikely, but welcome, grace.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Encounters at the end of the world."