Merciful and Powerful ‘Sans Merci’ at Garage Theatre • Long Beach Post

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Photos courtesy of Garage Theatre.


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To begin, Sans Merci is a great play and it’s current production at The Garage Theater in Collision with Alive Theatre is in many ways a stunner, so this review should pretty much write itself, right?

Usually after seeing something I enjoy, it is just a matter of sitting down and opening up the floodgates for a review to get written. Sans Merci is a deceptively complex work however, and although there are many truths and profundities in its traditional narrative, the work’s staying power and masterful scope lie in its subtextual and poetic prowess. 

Ultimately, the play is about loss. More specifically the play is about the loss of a loved one. It is perhaps for this reason that I begin so carefully.

In the same way that when someone you love passes, you wish to do them justice when you speak about them, I myself want to do this play (which has passed for me but runs until the 26th for all of you) justice in speaking about it. The difficulty in both of these actions is similar in that one don’t want to screw things up by leaving out something important. One fears that failing to include the proper mention of a gesture, or a smile, or a poetic coincidence, will sell the person or the play short. This would leave whoever is listening just shy of the proper insight that would bring the deceased to life for a moment, or bring a curious reader to the theater.

SansMerci02Sans Merci deserves to be seen by everyone in Long Beach. I hope my review and elegy do at least enough justice to pack The Garage’s small house through the end of its run.

The play is set mostly in Kelly’s (Cassie Vail Yeager) apartment, somewhere in southern California on the night of a particularly vicious and unusual rainstorm. Kelly is in her 20s and walks with a limp and a cane. Shortly after the lights come up there is a knock on Kelly’s door and she opens it to find Elizabeth Bird (Paige Polcene) on her patio, a 40-or 50-something-year-old woman, in a poncho with her umbrella in hand. We quickly discover that Elizabeth has arrived unannounced and that the two women have never met, not in person anyways.

The thing that links these two strangers was girl named Tracy Bird (Ashley Elizabeth Allen). Tracy was Elizabeth’s daughter and Kelly’s lover until a tragedy occurred during a trip to Columbia that the two girls had taken together three years prior. It becomes clear that Elizabeth doesn’t know the details of what occurred on that trip and has arrived at Kelly’s house in an attempt to put together the missing pieces.

What transpires as the two women discuss Tracy, their lives without her, and the massive, glaring differences between the two of them is what makes up the majority of Sans Merci.

Kelly was once a free spirited, anarchist lesbian with radical and liberal ideals. Her life now, without Tracy, is still founded in those ideals but noticeably wounded and less vivacious. Elizabeth is a middle-aged conservative Republican, who claims herself to have “never been in a lesbian’s apartment before” but a history of teaching poetry and a tragic, if repressed, compassion in her soul make so that this meeting has a subtle but noticeable effect on her life.

These are not two stock characters rubbing up against each other; the happenings of the plot could not be farther away from typical. Watching Elizabeth and Kelly recall the girl who they both loved more than anyone else in the universe is a tremendously touching and surprising experience, many moments of which are likely to leave you breathless. Their differences also allow playwright Joanna Adams to touch on such socially important topics as anarchy, premature death, poetry, lesbianism, consumerism, corporatism, Republicanism and love without leaving believability at the door.

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Luckily for us, we get to watch Kelly and Tracy’s relationship bloom in a series of flashbacks that Elizabeth intently but unobtrusively observes from upstage. We see them meet, fall in love and share their last moments together in Columbia. All of which is rendered with tender truthfulness.

The girls travel to Columbia to assist with the U’wa Oil Resistance, a tragedy of stolen land and corporate greed. Kelly feels so passionately about the mistreatment of the land that Tracy can not help but join in. What happens to the girls there is the central tragedy of the play and giving it away would be a tragedy of its own. The mysteries of the past are all revealed as the play concludes and I promise, they pack a wallop.

All three ladies in the cast offer fantastic performances. Cassie Vail Yeager plays a complex and tormented Kelly, with a convincing physicality and a mournful intensity. Paige Polcene is also fantastic as Elizabeth Bird, giving a sad and nuanced performance that is fully aware of Elizabeth’s conflicted, multidimensional personality. Ashley Elizabeth Allen is incredibly brave as Tracy, whose character changes the most dramatically from scene to scene as she grows from the mousy, panic attack laden girl at the play’s beginning, to the passionate, outspoken woman of the play’s, and her own end. All these women should be commended and applauded.

The technical elements were also on point. The Garage is a small space with only a handful of chairs in its house, yet the set (Yuri Okahana) light (Jonathan Daroca) and sound design (Jeff Polunas) all made this production seem perfectly suited for The Garage’s small setting, feeling far larger than its physical confines.

SansMerci04Katie Chidester provides skilled, clear, and often inspired direction, keeping up the pacing and expertly holding all of our focus though both acts. She is not afraid of the silence which this play needs to feel believable, and her use of theatricality, though reserved, helps elevate the play’s most transcendent moments. 

Sans Merci takes its name from John Keat’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy), a poem about a knight who meets and falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious faery woman, only to be left by her, to contemplate her existence and her love’s validity. This poem serves as the back bone of the play, which riffs off of its themes of love and loss, and builds its own poetics upon the poem’s stanzas.

I have rarely seen contemporary theater that so eloquently and multidimensionally examines not just a work of poetry, but such pressing and necessary themes without feeling preachy or heavy handed. To try and encapsulate the multitudes of layers that make this play worth seeing would be impossible. Theater is meant to be seen, to be experienced first hand. Luckily, unlike Tracy, this production has not met its untimely end and you have two weekends with which to experience its pains, its pleasures and its profundities first hand.

Go.

To buy tickets, click here. 

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