It’s not your typical love story. He was about 40, she
was — 12. Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.’s “Blackbird,” which opens
Thursday, is a dramatization of their unexpected reunion 15 years after
the affair. While David Harrower’s intense one-act has been compared to
the iconic “Lolita,” “Blackbird’s” fractured dialogue and real-time
plotting are unlike Nabakov’s text.
That staccato style blended with the thematic, twisted
love story intrigued director Lela Ivey back when Chad Badgero first
presented her with the script. Ivey has made a name for herself in
Lansing theater by directing darkly compelling stories of unorthodox
love like “Salome” at Lansing Community College and “Dark Play, or
Stories for Boys” for Peppermint Creek Theatre.
“It’s all these incomplete sentences and people talking
on top of one another, which I rather liked but I knew was going to
take a certain kind of work that I wasn’t into at that time,” Ivey
says. “But I (thought), ‘I’m attracted not only to the story but to the
language.’ It’s proved to be a real motherfucker.”
Doak Bloss agrees. The distinguished community theater
actor plays Ray, a man now in his mid-50s who, after serving time for
his crime of passion, changed his residency and identity.
“This is the hardest role I’ve ever done,” Bloss says.
“This is the hardest script I’ve ever tried to understand. The material
is just so disturbing. For a while, I couldn’t read it without shaking.
Just reading the script.”
Bloss says part of the difficulty comes from
understanding the motivations behind his character’s actions without
external judgment. “When you’re playing Hitler, you’re playing Hitler.
In this case, audiences could potentially judge Ray as a pedophile, but
Ray certainly does not think he’s a pedophile. Therefore Doak can’t
think Ray is a pedophile.”
As the now-adult Una, actress Angela Mishler finds the affair far simpler from her character’s point of view.
“It’s way easier to be Una than Ray. I mean I could be in love with Doak,” Mishler says.
“I think it’s just totally different. I can just see a
12- or 13-year-old girl or boy being swept up by an older person and
really feeling that connection and being in love. It’s just easier.”
Still, both actors admit their greatest challenge is
memorization of pages and pages of seemingly disconnected, incomplete
sentences. Ivey analyzes the dialogue’s apparent randomness: “These
people have a great need to communicate with each other. However,
they’re both not particularly articulate people. So it comes out in
fits and starts. The need is so strong to be clear and not to be
misunderstood that it’s hard. But when they get really angry, they can
become extremely articulate. When I say ’articulate,’ the sentences are
Part of the rehearsal process is completing the character’s thoughts to fill in the gaps left by the script.
Ivey encouraged Bloss and Mishler to complete the lines,
even if only in their minds. “Otherwise, it’s going to sound like
(they) have Tourette syndrome,” Ivey says. “There has to be a certain
clarity in the inarticulateness, like when someone doesn’t complete a
sentence and you know what they’re going to say but for some reason
they shift gears and approach it from a different way.”
Beyond the technical elements of cryptically descriptive
language moral questions without answers, Ivey feels the most important
element of a good love story is audience empathy.
“We’ve gotta get the tone right at the beginning because
you’ve got to like these people,” she says. “And if they come in and
they’re defensive and they’re argumentative and they’re angry, nobody’s
going to like them.” For a script steeped in explosive confrontations,
creating likable characters may be the most exciting challenge of all.
Peppermint Creek Theatre Co.
Through Oct. 1
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
226 E. Grand River Ave.,
$15 adults; $10 students and seniors