“But how did the cat get into her bag?” asked Eleanor,
“I don’t know,” said Dania, standing to put her coat back on. “Does it matter?”
“Not really,” Eleanor shrugged. The logic behind the reappearance of the cat didn’t particularly matter –– Maggie Lee’s play wore its heart proudly on its sleeve, to the point that the moral destinations were more satisfying than the narrative journeys that preceded them. “How the cat got there isn’t as important as the fact that it was found,” Eleanor summed up.
“The play did manage to tie up every loose end within 70 minutes,” Gwen observed. “For a short run time, they packed a lot in. Relationship drama, dream sequences…”
“It’s easy to do so when the characters fit into such stock tropes,” Eleanor added, looking askance.
Dania frowned. “Are they stock characters?” she wondered. “They didn’t feel like it.”
“I mean, they boil down pretty easily,” said Eleanor. “The overworked businesswoman, the out-of-touch boomer, the closeted lesbian couple, the bickering family…”
“There are elements of stock tropes, for certain,” Gwen agreed. “As soon as Margo started laying out her post-it notes next to her laptop, I understood that her resolution was going to involve her embracing the spirit of the holiday. I knew Rosemary would eventually warm to the younger cast members.”
“There were a bunch of child actors, weren’t there?” Dania pointed out. “At least five, by my count. I couldn’t tell how old the actors in the Hawaiian-shirt family were.”
“They’re all children,” Gwen said. “It’s a big cast –– fifteen people shoved into the West of Lenin blackbox. I was initially hesitant that they’d be able to balance the story between all of them. Someone had to get lost in the shuffle. For the most part, however, it felt evenly split.”
“I could have used more from the divorced sisters, Jess and Frances,” Eleanor said. “It felt like their arc was centered on helping Maya and Harrison get through their struggles, more than dealing with their own.”
“I liked the actors, though,” Dania said. “That little girl, Briana Lee, who played Frances –– she’s got great stage presence. Hersh Powers, as Harrison, does as well.”
“There was this moment, after the cat escaped, that felt honest to me,” Gwen recalled. “Maya and Harrison are searching for the cat, and on the other side of the stage, you can see Gemma –– Chloe Steinburg –– peeking out over the seating, keeping an eye on the situation. Moments like that helped the show feel more ensemble-driven.”
“That’s what really stood out for me, everyone being onstage the whole time,” smiled Eleanor. “There aren’t a lot of scenes that involve more than a handful of people. Even with the family of five, most scenes focus on two or three characters at a time. The shift comes via everyone who’s not talking –– how they start out ignoring the scenes going on around them, but by the end, everyone is paying attention to whoever is talking, no matter who it is.”
“I was initially going to knock the play for its inconsistent stage language regarding who could be heard when,” Gwen added. “The parents speaking at full volume only feet from their children, as though they couldn’t be overheard. But as it went on, that was clearly part of the charm: an airport arrival gate is a space where strangers agree to ignore each other, until they can’t any longer. Placed in context, it makes sense as a device.”
“I liked how they staged it, since it sort of followed that thought,” said Dania. “By putting the audience on either side, with the front row containing both actors and audience, it felt like we were all in the terminal with them.”
“Well, at least until they gave out socks to everyone except the audience,” Eleanor said. “How do they know that I’m safe from the Yule Cat?”
“Oh, I loved all those storytelling moments,” Dania recalled. “The older man telling stories to the little children? Those were my favorite parts.”
“I wish there had been more of those,” Gwen said, recalling the asides –– moments of heightened reality during which holiday traditions and folklore from around the world were acted out. “We got the three: the Yule Cat, the Japanese KFC craze, and the first Christmas tree. I suppose more is a lot to ask for, in a one-act play.”
“Well,” Eleanor said, chuckling. “The Christmas Tree scene did go on a bit longer than it was supposed to, tonight.”
The three laughed together. During the evening’s performance of the scene –– in which Fune Tautala, as the storyteller, held two boughs aloft and was covered in “spiderwebs” –– the paper snowflakes had failed to remain on his shoulder. Valiantly, actors Sienna Méndez and Daisy Schreiber had attempted to return the prop to its place, but to no avail. With the audience (and Tautala) all stifling laughter, one of the pair had plucked the rogue snowflake from the ground and pinned it through the storyteller’s shirt-buttons.
“That was great, though!” Dania cheered. “It was such an honest moment. Like, it just added to the charm of the scene.”
“That moment is a metaphor for the whole premise, honestly,” Gwen realized. “When something goes wrong, strangers become friends because it forces us to be honest. The action of the play is everyone at the gate growing closer to each other out of recognition of a mutual problem. The error in the stagecraft brought the whole theatre, audience and actors, together.”
“I’ve been thinking about the merits of simple-but-true art recently,” Eleanor began. “We reserve a lot of praise for plays where the writer organizes a complex web of clashing motivations and personalities. Plays that tackle enormous national themes within a tense human story. I’ve been thinking how they hold the audience at such a distance.”
“How so?” asked Gwen. “You mean, like a family drama?”
“This was sort of a family drama,” Dania said.
Eleanor considered. “Any sort of play where it feels…precious?”
She questioned the word choice –– not quite ideal to describe the polished anti-theatricality of dramas like Rabbit Hole or Disgraced.
“Like, theatre where that snowflake error would have killed the tone. Theatre that’s too self-important to have a musical interlude about friend chicken buckets, or a long conversation about the cultural appropriation of a dashboard hula girl.”
“I could definitely see someone writing that,” Gwen said. “Some Pulitzer-caliber playwright; a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, or a Suzan Lori-Parks…”
“That’s just it!” Eleanor said, suddenly. “‘Pulitzer-caliber.’ What does that even mean?”
“Someone who writes theatre that’s dense and loaded,” Dania suggested. “Someone trying to change the world with their art.”
“Is Maggie Lee not trying to change the world?”
“If she is, she’s not aiming for the same sort of impact,” explained Gwen. “I think the sort of prestige drama you’re describing has more of a goal of speaking to a divided nation. Lee’s work –– Sheathed included –– feels more like it talks to people on a more personal, idiosyncratic level.”
“Sure, but isn’t that just as valid?” asked Eleanor. “I sensed that with Sheathed. It was this interesting play about the pointless of using “revenge” as your motivation, with unique character arcs and a dynamic use of fight choreography to drive the narrative. But because the Pulitzer committee wouldn’t put it on a long-list, does that make it bad?”
“Not bad, just different,” Dania said.
“And still worth our time,” Eleanor continued. “I feel this push, especially as we round out the year and think about the best theatre of the year and decade, to heap praise onto the plays that made me feel worse about the world. The ones that paint these bleak pictures of families in crisis, and irreparable social divisions, and failures of empathy. And then I see something like this –– a play that’s satisfied to tell the honest stories of fifteen likeable people in a charming and fast-moving production –– and that’s gotta be worthy too, right?”
“I’ve only seen two of her plays, but I do pick up a stylistic tendency in Lee’s writing,” Gwen said. “She often has characters speak much more frankly to each other than they would in real life. That happened in Sheathed: the dialogue between Ren and the Foxfire Players is on the nose, might be seen as too much exposition in the mouths of less talented performers. But with the right performers and solid direction –– it’s good that Maggie Lee and director Amy Poisson found each other –– it works.”
“And it’s not like her writing doesn’t have any national themes,” Dania pointed out. “The conversation between the lesbian couple felt very relevant to right now.”
“I appreciated the way it concluded, with the girlfriend agreeing to help her non-binary partner stay in the closet, for now” Gwen said, eyes worried. “It wasn’t the barrier-breaking ending that people likely wanted, but the honesty in it –– about how some queer people don’t have the freedom to be open around their families –– rang painfully true.”
“There’s certainly merit to Lee’s writing, it’s not uncomplicated,” Eleanor clarified. “With fifteen characters, how could it be? But it’s lighter in tone, at least on the surface, than many lauded dramas are. And it shouldn’t be shunted for that!”
“I really enjoyed it, complex or not,” Dania smiled. “Off-the-wall holiday productions always stand out for me, against the backdrop of Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols. Plus, the play isn’t just about people waiting to get home for Christmas, it hits a lot of the familiar beats. The large group of child characters, the people who warm to the holiday over time, sharing cookies…”
“The importance of family over material goods, the building of communities, giving selflessly to others…” Gwen continued.
“And the hope that speaking openly to each other can bring out the best in others,” Eleanor summed up.
“Simple, but effective,” Gwen said. “Like the play itself.”
“Although they could have offered the audience cookies, too,” grumbled Dania.
Eleanor laughed. “Hey, maybe next year.”
Image Credit: (l to r) Kiki Abba, Tadd Morgan, Elora Coble, & Chloe Steinburg / Photo: Joe Iano