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Caught, as we are, in the midst of this pandemic, we find we must adapt; the way we used to do things is no longer entirely valid. Social distancing, wearing our masks, and being cognizant of what and who we touch are very much the norm now. Being aware of these conditions, the current production opening Burning Coal Theatre Company's 24th season, A Hundred Words for Snow, by Tatty Hennessy, works around these conditions and, much to our surprise, makes them work for the show.
First, one must be made aware that what we are about to see is nothing like anything we have seen before. First and foremost, "what we have come to see" doesn't meet the definition. For the major portion of this 75-minute show, what we see is nothing at all.
Burning Coal redefines just what is "intimate" theatre with this production. Mindful of the pandemic, patrons are brought into the theater one at a time, and each is shown to his or her seat. No one can fail to be aware of the fact that there are only four patrons allowed for each show. While these precautions are all within the parameters of pandemic operations, they are also an integral part of "prepping" each quartet for what we are about to witness. I use that word purposefully; what we actually see is only a small portion of the production. Fairly quickly into the show, as we are instructed just prior to the curtain going up, each patron dons a second mask. This mask is similar to a sleeping mask; we are plunged into darkness. Our eyes now covered, we must use only our ears for most of the show. There is method to this madness: using only our ears to understand what is happening, we are forced to "see" our protagonist's journey in our mind's eye. This is a far richer pallet than any Burning Coal might have created on stage.
Snow is a one-woman show. Our conductor on this journey is a precocious young high school student. She is the only child of a dynamic and creative father and a mother who lives in her husband's shadow. Further, the show begins immediately after her father's funeral (he was killed by a freak car accident as he was walking home from class).
Burning Coal uses two different actresses, performing alternately, to present Snow: Laura Lillian Barrett and Kimmy Fiorentino, despite being young actors, have rather long pedigrees, including shows for Burning Coal, under their belts. The show my quartet witnessed was the 9:30 performance opening night. For this production, Fiorentino was our star to guide us through our journey.
Our guide is named Aurora, but please don't call her that. She's Rory, just Rory. Aurora is not the name one would associate with this little dynamo of a high school student. Rory, just 15, is a fast talker, open, and very much her father's child. While her father was in fact a geography teacher, he was both to himself and his daughter an explorer. And the place uppermost in his mind to explore, as so many have tried before him, is the North Pole. But what Rory doesn't discover until after he has passed is that her father, who promised her the two of them would someday soon go to the North Pole, had actually planned out the entire trip and scheduled it for next year. She learns this from reading his journal, which she finds on the desk in his study the afternoon of his funeral.
Rory's mother is useless; she is grief-stricken and spends her time after the funeral in the garden, crying. This, of course, leaves Rory alone to deal with all the guests who come by to pay their respects. Once they have gone, she retreats to her dad's study and, alone with his urn of ashes, she explores his journal. Rory explains all this to us from the study. The set consists of the four (clear plexiglass) walls of the study, her dad's desk and chair. As one might expect, there is a large globe of the earth on his desk, mountains of books, both on shelves and stacked about the office, and on one wall, a history of the exploration of the North Pole by all the many explorers who have gone before. Rory, who is very much unhappy with the death of her father and the woefully inappropriate (to her) funeral, makes a decision. She decides she will make the trip her father has planned for them and take his ashes to the North Pole for burial.
Knowing, of course, that, were she to ask, her mother would never permit it, Rory decides not to tell her. Obtaining her mother's charge card from her purse, Rory waits until Mom has left for work the next morning and then sets out on her journey.
Here's the kicker: Upon a musical cue, a cover of the Beatles' "Across the Universe," we have been instructed to don the mask each of us has beneath his seat. This is an opaque "sleeping" mask; our eyes are now covered and the only thing we can sense from Rory is her now-disembodied voice. This is a very integral part of the play. As we hear Rory describe her journey to us, we are forced to imagine what she is telling us to "see."
As she describes her arrival in Norway and her exploits. We use her words to see what she describes to us: a world of white, of snow and ice and water. There are two legs to her journey: one to a larger city in Norway, which to her surprise is very much like her city at home, and then to the northernmost tip of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, which is the jumping-off point for her trip of about 50 kilometers to the actual Pole. At her first stop, she meets a group of peers ("all these people are beautiful") and, allowing herself to be invited to a party that evening, she is seduced by the group's dynamic leader, a godlike "older" boy who actually has a car and whisks her away to a tryst where – totally unbeknownst to him - he takes her virginity (a coming of age for Rory). At her next stop, she is befriended by an older woman who is herself a researcher; they share her tent (and her food) in the frozen tundra, where Rory first experiences the Northern Lights, and discovers why her father named her Aurora. That's the good part. The bad part is, this woman discovers Rory's passport, and her mother's charge card, and correctly deduces that Rory is there unknown to her mother. The upshot of this is, she is removed from the camp to the local police station, and is summarily confronted by her mother.
We experience all of this while our eyes are covered, seeing it – each of us differently, completely within his own mind – as she describes it to us: the freezing temperatures, the stiffening of her body from cold, the chilling water that seeps into her boots, and the many different colors of white. This is in a very real sense theatre of the mind. Once Rory's journey is over, and she and her mom return home, we again find Rory – now that our masks have been removed – in her father's study. She carefully returns the books and journal to his desk, and bids us farewell. Each of us left alone in the dark, none of us moves right away, each taking a moment to finish drinking in this unique and highly provocative experience. It is theatre like none any of us has experienced before, and we are – as is to be expected – somewhat stunned.
Even in the face of this dreadful COVID-19 event, Burning Coal is supplying us with new and innovative theatre. Due, of course, to the very limited number of seats, Burning Coal is very nearly sold out; nevertheless, I have it from the director himself that there are a small amount of seats still to be had. But don’t be slow. Act!
A Hundred Words for Snow continues through Sunday, October 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.