Falling for Burning Coal Theatre Company’s five-star Dark Vanilla Jungle and harrowing Rum & Vodka | Theater | Indy Week

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Falling for Burning Coal Theatre Company’s five-star Dark Vanilla Jungle and harrowing Rum & Vodka

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Now I know: It’s a mistake to look away.

In a moment of reverie, I was gazing out of a friend’s dorm-room window at the large oak tree that towered above our building. There was sound and movement among its branches; I smiled as I saw two squirrels darting among them.

Then, one of them lost its footing. The squirrel plummeted, its body contorting frantically as its claws sought purchase among the interstices of limbs and foliage. I heard it crash through one spray of leaves—and then another, and another—as it fell. I shut my eyes. My heart raced and my muscles went rigid, braced for impact.

Since I couldn’t look, the story never ends. It revisits me occasionally, a variation on the falling dreams that research indicates are our most universally shared dream experience. You don’t have to be the one who’s falling to feel the full-body empathetic response.

This is a mystery: how we creatures are so interconnected that an immediate danger to one can register, profoundly, on the others. Another mystery stands beside it: that such an intricate web can be completely severed by ignorance, indifference, need or cruelty.

That’s the core of my response to the two harrowing productions that conclude Burning Coal Theatre Company’s month-long festival of one-person shows this weekend.

Rarely—very rarely—do we find as perfect a combination of playwright, director and performer as in this staging of DARK VANILLA JUNGLE. Actor Caitlin Wells and director Staci Sabarsky (in, alas, her final regional production before she moves away) have turned Philip Ridley’s cryptogram of a script into a compelling and prismatic act of witness, as a teenager named Andrea places the events of recent weeks against the longer narrative of her life.

Wells’ character charms and disarms us at first, contrasting bubbly childhood memories of her mother’s life as a professional singer with giddy recollections of her own, much more recent, first love.

Then we start to notice Andrea’s jackknife mood changes, as she speaks of a romanticized, long-absent father coming home and of her idealized lover crossing a first inappropriate boundary. Her rose-colored glasses slip more than once before they fall and shatter. And, through Sabarsky’s expert interpretation and Wells’ meticulous, jaw-dropping performance, we find ourselves trapped on the ride with Andrea as she falls through the flimsiest of safety nets.

As we watch with concern and increasing horror, we can see an elastic young mind gradually rewiring itself in response to the damage it’s known. As it does, something dark and very hungry blossoms in a bright young girl, in the most compelling local production I’ve seen in quite some time. Drop everything; this you’ve got to see.

Michael, the sole character in RUM & VODKA, is also falling through most of Conor McPherson’s script. Under Ilana Rozin’s discerning direction, actor Benjamin Apple has kept the rough edges of a haphazard man-child and budding alcoholic in his late 20s who has stumbled his way into—and, just now, out of—a marriage that produced two daughters and a job in the British civil service.

When we meet, Michael is recounting a weekend bender that threatens to become his new lifestyle after a drunken dust-up at his place of work. His friends’ disastrous ideas of intervention involve even more drinks and nights away from home, as Michael tumbles in and out of bad-decision bars and beds across Dublin.

By mid-show, at least he’s learned the right question. But does Michael ever learn that only he can cure his own life? You’ll have to figure that one out for yourself. Recommended.

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