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The Children and The Unstrung Harp 

Opening the cracks in our lives

Kathryn Cesarz and Jesse March in The Unstrung Harp at Synapsis.

Photo by Mark Larson

Kathryn Cesarz and Jesse March in The Unstrung Harp at Synapsis.

THE CHILDREN. It was a dark and stormy night ... when Rose (Rae Robison) let herself into the cottage occupied by her old friends Hazel (Pam Long) and Robin (Gary Sommers). The reunion gets off to a rocky start when Hazel hits Rose over the head, thinking she is a burglar. Thus begins The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, now playing at Redwood Curtain and, it turns out, something of a parable for our times.

The three, we learn, worked together at a nuclear power station on the English coast, just a few miles from where Hazel and Robin now live. After the birth of Hazel's first child almost 40 years earlier, Rose, unable to deal with the emotional turmoil of her former lover (Robin) settling down with a woman who appeared to be the picture of perfection (Hazel), took off on a journey of self-discovery. Meanwhile, Robin and Hazel settled into a comfortable routine — one in which Hazel, at least, became seemingly ever more perfect — balancing four children and a healthy lifestyle with her career as a nuclear scientist.

But when a disaster happens at the power station, that perfect life evaporates in the "filthy glitter" of radiation. Hazel and Robin are forced to leave their organic farmstead and move into a cottage owned by a distant cousin of Robin's. They have electricity just a few hours a day and the tap water is unsafe. As an uncomfortable reminder of COVID times, they are also cut off from family and must frequently test for radiation exposure.

Fundamental differences and commonalities surface as the women catch up with each other's lives. What is the value of a long life if it's not a happy one? What does fulfilment look like? When does societal responsibility trump individualism? What kind of world will today's children inherit? Each, for very different reasons, struggles with a burden of guilt. When Robin returns from "tending to the animals" at the farmstead to find his former lover in conversation with his wife, his reaction is to open a celebratory bottle (or two) of home-made parsnip wine. But as the wine is consumed and the real reason for Rose's visit becomes apparent, the cracks in everyone's carefully constructed personas deepen and threaten to blow apart.

The Children is an intense 90 minutes that will draw you into the characters' lives and challenge your own thoughts on our responsibility for future generations; the setting and circumstances are reminiscent of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and remind us of the potential dangers Humboldt Bay faces from Mother Nature. All three actors put in memorably strong performances, and Craig Benson's direction keeps the pressure up, although a little judicious editing would strengthen the overall impact of the piece.

Carlene Cogliati's nuanced set design is full of little clues to Hazel and Robin's life after the disaster that emphasize how much we rely on the "conveniences" of modern life like running water and reliable electricity. Michael Burkhart's lighting design and Andrew Wright's sound design add to the post-apocalyptic atmosphere, while Jaiden Clark's stage management keeps everything running smoothly.

Redwood Curtain Theatre's The Children runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 20. Call (269) 355-0819 or visit redwoodcurtain.com.

THE UNSTRUNG HARP. During the total theatrical shutdown of the past couple years, theater maker Kathryn Cesarz pondered the lot of the creative artist in solitude. She found herself drawn to the oddly familiar tale of the novelist Mr. Clavius Frederick Earbrass, as conceived and brought to life by the inimitable Edward Gorey. She began to visualize a live interpretation of the challenges of solitary creation — isolation, boredom and plain procrastination. The result is an endearing, whimsical, laugh-out-loud funny story of the birth of the novel The Unstrung Harp, as interpreted by theater artist and mime Jesse March, now playing at Synapsis.

Mr. Earbrass keeps a list of possible book titles in a little green notebook. Every two years, he selects a title at random and begins to write a novel to fit the title on Nov. 18. By teatime Nov. 17, he has yet to come up with a plot. But he cannot drag his mind away from the last biscuit on the plate. Or the squeaky wheel of the tea trolley. Or the rejection letter from his intended bride.

March is melodrama personified as the nattily Victorian-attired Earbrass. Though he says not a word, his physical presence speaks volumes as he pushes through the obstacles he places in his own way. No matter whether he's sailing around the stage on the tea trolley, drowning in bad first drafts, being assailed by the many demons of his imagination (Cesarz), or when he finally cracks the path to the unstrung harp of his dreams, he draws you effortlessly into his world.

With wonderfully creative lighting by Spike Foster, imaginative shadow puppetry by master technician James Hildebrandt, Mystery-style sound effects by John March and Mackenzie Ridgwood, and James Peck's minimalist deadpan narration, The Unstrung Harp is an hour of pure unadulterated fun.

Bonus: If you can't get to see the live show, you can support the performers and get access to a video of the show via their GoFundMe, linked from their website at devisedtheatre.wordpress.com.

The Unstrung Harp runs at Synapsis Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through Aug. 14. Call (707) 616-3104 or visit devisedtheatre.wordpress.com.

Pat Bitton (she/her) is a freelance writer/editor based in Eureka who is theoretically retired but you know how that goes.

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