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‘Blackbird’ at Minneapolis’ Dark amp; Stormy theater explores the aftershocks of abuse

December 17, 2018

The emotional terrain of Blackbird is established before its two actors even open their mouths.

Director Michaela Johnsons brisk, precise staging takes place in a workplaces breakroom, the floor literally piled high with debris in Dark Stormy Productions studio space (someone really likes Cheez-Its).

Una (Sara Marsh) and Ray (Luverne Seifert) stride in and it is immediately clear that she is very tightly wound and he is freaked about whatever it is she wants to say to him. Both of these states are heightened by the debris, particularly plastic bottles that, when the characters step on them, will startle us as surely as if they were land mines.

Blackbird, by David Harrower, is one of those two-person dramas that is largely about figuring out what the characters want from each other. Quickly, it becomes clear theyre meeting for the first time in 15 years and she is here among the waxed-paper wrappers and snack-cake boxes to ask a question: How many other 12-year-olds have you had sex with?

I dont think the word pedophile is ever used in Blackbird but it hangs over the play, particularly when Ray repeatedly insists, I was never one of them. But both characters tell lies in Blackbird and a big part of the audiences job in watching the open-ended play is to figure out, based on the finely-gauged performances, when theyre telling the truth. (An unintended part of our job is to unpack the British playwrights classism, since he seems to think its an insult to be a janitor.)

Actors choices always have an enormous impact on the plays they perform, but I could imagine them influencing Blackbird even more than usual. In fact, Id be fascinated to see a festival of Blackbirds, with a different duo performing the play each night. How might different women handle Unas attempt to regain some of the power Ray stole from her? How might different men reveal Rays pathology?

Seiferts enormous likability as a performer makes him a brilliant choice for Ray. Initially, he makes you want to believe theres been some sort of misunderstanding the way you might if, for instance, you discovered your neighbor abused adolescents but it also throws the later scenes into relief, making Rays protestations hollower and more frightening. Una seems more straightforward but Marsh strips away her teasing intelligence in a painful, emotionally specific monologue that hints she, too, is lying about the direction her life has taken since Ray exploited her.

Both actors in this handle Harrowers Mamet-y, staccato-rhythmed dialogue deftly, almost as if theyre duetting on a thorny piece of music a piece that takes on a disturbing life of its own when a late-in-the-play development raises the stakes, revealing what this discussion has really been about all along.

chris.hewitt@startribune.com 612-673-4367 Twitter: @HewittStrib