One has to reach back to ancient Greece and the dawn of drama to fully understand Daniel Talbott’s intense, cathartic one-act play, What Happened When. Drama in the time of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides had the civic purpose of educating the populace by displaying examples of moral and behavioral excess that brought ruin on principal characters such as Oedipus, Medea and others. This produced the emotions of pity and fear in the audience, which was then purged and released by catharsis. Drama was and is educational, expanding the experience of the audience, which lives through the characters on stage often to the point of physically responding to the events, sometimes provoking a kinesthetic response. Watch a Rocky film and one’s body twitches with each blow. See a character get kicked in the balls and every man in the audience will automatically have a sympathetic response. So witnessing a performance of tragedy, or deeply unpleasant behavior is entertaining in that it pulls one out of oneself and into a bond with the characters, thus gaining a deeper understanding of the excesses of human behavior. With What Happened When, Daniel Talbott stands in line with the great traditions of tragedy from the Greeks through the Elizabethans to Twentieth Century masters, such as O’Neill, Williams and Albee.
What Happened When is the tale of three siblings–Jimi (Randall Clute), the youngest, sister Sam (Ellen Neary) in the middle, and Will (Chris Stack), the eldest–who suffer through poverty, familial instability, and mental, sexual and physical abuse. It is tough stuff to witness. It is soul clenching. There is great rapport between the characters as they interact with each other. It is clear they have a rocky bond of love between them. Will is the wild one who will have sex with almost anything, including his little brother’s bear. Ruled by his penis, he is always on the make. Will is smart in his own way, but totally unfit to attend school. Sam is the responsible one, who has a job, or several jobs, and assumes the role of looking out for her younger sibling. Jimi has a love/hate relationship with the mercurial Will and for good reason. This cast is extraordinary, expressing a range of emotions that is utterly, intensely absorbing. Nothing is held back. It is as tight an ensemble as can be imagined.
The configuration of the performance space has chairs and risers curving in close to the characters, surrounding them in thrust fashion bringing some of the audience members close enough to touch the players. This intimacy allows the audience to perceive the most nuanced expressions of the characters.
The rawness of some of the scenes and frankness of language, especially the graphic sexual expressions may make some audience members very uncomfortable. In the performance I saw, one audience member, apparently unable to take any more, got up and left the auditorium. He did not sneak out so much as flee.
Under the nuanced direction of Chris Fields, the entire action takes place in Jimi’s bedroom (scenic design by Amanda Knehans), which is dominated by an old-fashioned cast iron bedstead sitting on a rag rug, with a dresser and small mirror, a nightstand with a lamp and a toy fire truck, and an armchair. The walls make a corner and are semi-transparent with a motley spray of colors reminiscent of the splatter work of Jackson Pollak with shades of red and greens that have an unsettling effect. Lighting by Rose Malone compliments the set and the mood of the play. Costuming by Elio Oliver supports character and action. The sound design by John Zalewski is excellent. I especially appreciated the very soft, very subtle sounds of children that could just barely be perceived in the moments before the house lights dimmed.
This remarkable Echo Theater Company production plays Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 8pm at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue in Los Angeles and closes on April 26. Time is short if you want to see it, which I recommend you do. However, What Happened When will re-open this summer and again in the fall, each time featuring a different combination of ensemble members.