Curiouser and Curiouser

"Seizures suck," declares Molly, a young woman afflicted with them, to her doctor. "They show up like ghosts." That is why Molly would like to get rid of them, and the doctors can accomplish that, by removing part of her brain.Unfortunately, more than Molly's epilepsy might be lost in that endeavor.

Molly's story is one of several intertwined tales of brain damage, disease, and transformation treated provocatively yet conscientiously by Rabbit Hole Ensemble in their haunting piece A Rope in the Abyss.

Earlier this theatrical season, a character in Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll proposed that humans could build an artificial brain "out of beer cans" if we only knew how a real one works. The same frustration confronts Rabbit Hole's characters, but they explore the problem in greater detail than Stoppard's. Like the titular rope, each of Rabbit Hole's stories begins with familiar people, naturalistically (for the most part) portrayed, then plummets into mysterious places that science has not yet fully explained.

When a person loses their memory or changes personality, are they still "themselves?" Is the real self a "soul" that inhabits the brain? Can love survive in the absence of memory, self, and language? Is it better to fully comprehend one's grief or guilt, or is amnesia, in this context, a blessing? And can humans communicate in a vocabulary made out of different kinds of pickles?

A Rope in the Abyss asks all those questions, and then some, but modestly provides no declarative answers. Focused sharply yet broadly on its subject matter and tautly, unpretentiously, and empathetically constructed, each of the stories is a miniature drama, with lightly sketched characters filled in vividly by the passionate, technically precise acting of the four-actor ensemble.

In keeping with Rabbit Hole's signature aesthetic, there is nearly no set, absolutely basic costumes, no sound effects other than those created by the actors, and special effects consisting merely of the sharp, deliberate use of lighting to create striking chiaroscuro, shadows, and contours that help tell the story.

Playwright and director Edward Elefterion, who very deservedly won the 2007 Midtown International Theatre Festival's award for Outstanding Direction for Nosferatu: The Morning of My Death, works magic again with clear characterisation, painterly tableaux, and brisk pacing.

As Molly, Tatiana Gomberg (the ethereal Mina Harker of The Night of Nosferatu) conveys this bewildered young woman's desperate desire for a cure and subconscious fear of losing her self. Gomberg also shines as catankerous health nut Lorraine, who, after being "dead for two minutes" after a stroke, changes every aspect of her personality, horrifying her slacker son Harold (Dan Ajl Kitrosser). Both of Lorraine's personalities as acted by Gomberg are wholly convincing, and consequently compel the audience to share Harold's confusion.

As Harold and amnesiac murderer Russ, Kitrosser pulls off some tone-changing physical comedy, but also adequately conveys the horror that both characters ultimately experience. The tale of the murderer, narrated in pseudo-Seussian rhyming couplets, is the least successful of the many narratives. Its scientific context is explained less clearly and completely than the other stories.

This is unfortunate because its subject--repressed and recovered memory--is perhaps the most controversial within the medical establishment, with some medical scholars and practitioners declaring that repressed-memory-recovery is a myth and others insisting it is a common occurrence. The whimsical verse poetry perhaps illustrates the character's mind (Russ is an LSD addict, initially) but it is ultimately a case of style substituted for substance.

Overall, however, A Rope in the Abyss constantly intrigues and engages as it winds through many conflicts and lives. That is no easy rope trick.

Kitrosser's interpretation of a third role, haunted Iraq War veteran, is the least patronizing performance of that type that I have seen in a long time, and I have seen several.

The final two members of the ensemble, Nosferatu actors Danny Ashkenasi and Emily Hartford, spin a sad and beautiful love story about Hugh, an opera singer who loses most of his memories to an aneurism and Donna, Hugh's loving but overwhelmed, frustrated, and alienated wife. Yes, you do get to hear Ashkenasi sing opera, and it sounds convincingly operatic.

The moment in which the opera springs forth from the recesses of Hugh's damaged mind is the play's most surreal and mysterious moment. I can't tell you the details, but not because I don't remember them. I do. In fact, A Rope in the Abyss, will remain in my memory, I hope, for a good long time.

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