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'The Events' depicts the frustrations of asking 'why?' after mass shootings

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'The Events' at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, New Haven

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Although the finely acted and thought-provoking play that opened on Tuesday night, June 24, at the Yale Repertory Theatre as part of New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas is called “The Events,” the action essentially focuses around a single tragic event, an apparently unprovoked mass shooting of a church choir during one of their rehearsals.

But those of us in Connecticut can readily suggest one possible reason why Scottish playwright David Greig decided to use the plural in the work’s title. Through the story of the aftermath of this fictional event, Greig’s solemn meditation reflects on all of the similar events that have made the news in recent years, from our own shooting in Sandy Hook, the attention grabbing shooting in Columbine and the murders of 70+ teenagers at a youth camp in Norway. At the center of this work is the question that nearly everyone seems to ask in the days and weeks following the immediate tragedy: Why?

In the case of “The Events,” the asking is being done by a minister of God, Claire, an Assistant Pastor who is also the choirmaster of the church where the shootings occurred. She was present during the incident and, as we learn later in the play, was involved in one of its most harrowing moments, when she and a fellow choir member were confronted by the perpetrator in a music room and given a choice that would test both their humanity and spirituality.

Claire, however, in the subsequent days, weeks and perhaps months, will become obsessed with her question as she tries in vain to make some sense of the multi-casualty events. We follow her as she seeks out the young man’s (of course, it is a young man or boy, because that is who most often commits such atrocities) father, his best friend, even a radical politician whose attacks on diversity clearly intrigued the boy. Her search will cause tension in her relationship with her female partner, Katrina, and ultimately lead her to consider some act of retribution.

As played by Derbhle Crotty, Claire is a strong-willed woman who is almost single minded in her search for answers, almost to the point of discarding any sense of the pastoral in pursuing her objective. At one point she even considers becoming a prison chaplain, but it turns out that she only wants entry to meet and get to know the Boy. We get occasional glimpses of how pastoral Claire could be at one time, welcoming new people to the choir or encouraging individual singers, which makes her campaign to make sense of all that has happened all the sadder, especially as she comes close to alienating what has been left of the choir. Crotty conveys Claire’s anguish quite palpably, first in her angry suggestion that it’s about time that God made an appearance—and why not to her?—to answer for all these events, and later as she feels frustrated by her inability to get her hands around the reasons why and screams in the most frightening wail “but I’m the victim! I’m the victim!” For Claire, her very faith and self-identity are on the line in a situation that will provide her with no easy answers.

Equally fine is Clifford Samuel, who we first see at the top of the show as someone new to choir but insists on sitting off to the side. Throughout the show, he will embody not only the Boy, but a wealth of other characters including Katrina, the various personages Claire seeks out in her quest, as well as Claire’s own questioning mind, which she chooses to visualize in the person of the Boy. Samuel plays these characters with the utmost seriousness, engaging in believable dialogues with Claire, especially as the boy’s associates are quick to distance themselves from any potential blame for what happened. Samuel also demonstrates some playful moments as he provides ironic counterpoint to some of Claire’s thoughts and creates a distinct character for the Boy when we and Claire finally get a chance to meet him.

But Greig also ups the theatricality and the impact of his work by including as a significant character in the play, the chorus itself. As played by a different local chorus each night wherever this touring production from England’s Actors Touring Company plays, the choir fulfills some of the duties of a typical Greek chorus, as well as standing in for the church choir of the play itself and voicing a variety of familiar hymns and new music composed by John Browne. On Tuesday evening, the New Haven Chorale provided both robust and ethereal accompaniment, with groups from Western Connecticut State University, the Greater New Haven Community Chorus, the Wayfaring Choir, the New Growth and Friends Choir, The Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Mass Choir and the West Hartford Women’s Chorale playing the chorus throughout the rest of the run, which ends on Saturday, June 28.

The choir remains onstage throughout the entire work, either on a set of risers toward the back of the stage or in various rehearsal modes down front, in chairs arranged for the women members or on an empty stage as Claire brings in a drum playing shaman (also played by Samuel) to force some type of movement therapy on the members. The choir will also respond to questions posed by Samuel’s character acting as a talk show emcee whose answers encapsulate the various clipped and inadequate descriptions employed by news media and the public to describe the Boy. One of the most haunting moments comes toward the end as the choir joins Claire in trying to renew their faith and hope by singing a Browne composition “I’m Here” while certain voices provide a tear-inducing counterpoint.

Because the choirs are all local, we are reminded that the Boy's victims could have potentially been our friends and neighbors, engaged in one of their more rewarding volunteer activities. That adds an additional level of humanity in trying to bring a face and a name those killed or injured in such a senseless spree.

Some of the power of Greig’s work resides in Claire’s role as a sort of “Everyman” or Everywoman. The thoughts that race through her mind as she tries to get a handle on what occurred are quite relatable, as they are at heart similar to many of our own thoughts as we try to make sense of some disturbing event or failure in our own lives. For example, Claire imagines that she and Katrina adopted the Boy in his infancy and raised him to now be bound for college or even the trades, thus having prevented the shooting. Or she imagines other ways with connecting with the Boy so that she can get to the root of his actions. It’s easy to understand Claire’s frustration at the unavailability of definitive answers, while simultaneously recoiling the toll her probably futile obsession is taking on her life and career.

The production has been flawlessly directed by the Actors Touring Company’s Artistic Director Ramin Grey, who keeps Claire’s thoughts and reactions almost manically flowing, while clearly differentiating locations, time sequences and characters so that we are never really lost in the telling of this tale. He has also found a way to incorporate the choir much easier than anticipated into the direct action of the play, establishing a template, including individual speaking lines, that must be provided to each choir for their own rehearsals.

Magnus Gilljam serves as pianist for the tour, and serves unobtrusively as the de factor choir leader from his post behind the piano. Chloe Lamford is responsible for the appropriately bare bones design which recreates a non-descript choir room with risers, a refreshment table and a registration table (where the stage manager unobtrusively sits). With the Yale Repertory Theatre being a former church, the set is all the more comfortable and relatable in these surroundings. Charles Balfour’s lighting assists tremendously with the on-stage transitions while Alex Caplen’s sound design assures that the actors can be heard clearly, even doing some of the more frantic moments of the staging.

I would by no means describe “The Events” as an issue play, but instead more as a “food for thought” play, that allows us to reach some sort of communal identification with our own personal questions of “why?” and how often there is no simple answer. Throughout the performance, it is hard not to think of our fellow citizens in Sandy Hook and their continuing quest for some sort of peace, as well as the 70+ school shootings that have occurred since then. Although Claire remains disappointed in the insight she gains from her search, we are left with the only decision she—and we—have available: to go on.

“The Events” plays through Saturday night at the Yale Repertory Theatre at 8 p.m. evenings with a 3 p.m. performance on Saturday afternoon. For information and tickets, call the Shubert Theatre Box Office at 203.562.5666 or visit the International Festival’s website www.artidea.org.

To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner or the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article near the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.

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