The year is 2201, and we are all gathered in a large lecture hall for “The Divide Lectures,” delivered by two professors — a man decked out in all white and a woman in all black — who are about to tell us of a diary they have discovered from one Soween Clay, published in 2153 during the “Post Divide” period. We are first reminded that the Divide began after a terrible plague (“The Plague”) brought the population down from 60 million to just a few thousand — a horrific, ten-day death spread by women, who were the carriers after the age of eleven. Men became susceptible to the disease at the age of sixteen, and thus the land was divided into two halves: a southern section for women and children and a northern for men.
In this society, same sexes married each other, with women determining who would be the “mama” and who, the “mapa.” The entire society was governed strictly under threats of severe punishment and death by “The Book of Cervitude” written by “The Preacher;” and the holy book was read in every house, every school, every civic meeting/occasion. Its teachings dictated that the main role of women was to worship God and to degrade self while the role of men was to lead. Women lived in a land where there was little music, no colors (other than black, white, and gray) in clothing or possessions, and few books; and every female’s outfit looked exactly the same as all the others, from covered head to toe. Men too dressed all the same, but were allowed in their half of “The Divide” more leniency of the arts and cultures — with the exception of nothing depicting the woman’s body. The two sexes were to remain separate; and when some meetings were necessary, each covered the face with a veil (either white or black, of course) to protect against the males being further infected by the unclean, disease-carrying women.
Thus is the set-up for the world premiere of Alan Ayckboun’s science-fiction plays, The Divide: Parts 1 and 2 (each, three hours in length). After the initial lecture outlining much of the above facts about this now (in 2201) extinct society, we are immersed in Part 1 into the day-to-day lives of Soween Clay’s family, picking up her life after she was given a diary for her ninth birthday and told to write in it everyday. She does so, particularly focusing on her and her older brother’s (Elihu) lives as they progress through their teenage years and transition to what is defined as adulthood at that time (eleven for girls, sixteen for boys, at which time the boys leave their homes with “mama” and “mapa” and move into the males-only North Divide). What starts as strange, foreign, and a little like a “Star Trek” or “Twilight Zone” episode soon becomes a fully engaging, sometimes funny, often touching journey of two kids growing up. While their world is on the outside nothing like ours in 2017, we soon begin to see that the joys, drives, hopes, fears, and trials of the teenagers of 2153 parallel many of those of today. Special friendships form, some becoming emotion-packed first-loves; kids form alliances and gangs, with both good and bad results; students and teachers bond (or not) in ways that clearly may affect both the rest of their lives. But during the Great Divide, all these ‘normal’ teenage milestones occur in a society ruled by extreme orthodox teachings, monitoring, and prejudices — many too closely resembling some parts of our global society today.
Erin Doherty as Soween is one of two key narrators of her family’s story, capturing in a myriad of ways the language, curiosities, feelings, quirks, and sudden emotional shifts of any girl between nine and twelve, in every era. Equally masterful in portraying the male half of progressing through the early-to-mid teen years is Jake Davies as Elihu — a boy whose zeal for life, learning, and discovery is evident in the intensity and sincerity of character Mr. Davies brings to his Elihu. Both actors are magnetic in their ability to draw us into their discoveries, their secrets, their longings, and the changes happening ever-more rapidly in their transforming bodies and minds.
Surrounding them is a stellar cast who to a person displays aspects of a society so foreign from anything we have ever experienced while also giving us glimpses into interactions, relationships, biases, and dilemmas that are surprisingly familiar to ours. As the story progresses — shifting under the astute and sensitive directing of Annabel Bolton with ease and without pause between the perspectives of sister and brother — elements of societal change begin to creep in. Both a moderate and a progressive voice start to make themselves heard — from the local village council to individual acts of expression daring to go outside the strict boundaries dictated by “The Preacher” and his orthodox followers. The tension builds as does the anticipation of how this all might affect both Soween and Elihu. Where the playwright leaves us at the end of Part 1 is at a point of “I can’t wait to see Part 2.”
Clearly, The Divide: Parts 1 and 2 is a premiere of global importance for the theatrical world. This is not just a world of fantasy that the playwright has created. This is a universally applicable textbook of what can happen when extreme teachings rule any society. Part 1 a reminder that the human drive for freedom of thought, expression, and relationship continues to exist, even in the most extreme cases of regulation and deprivation. I personally cannot wait to learn what other lessons Mr. Ayckbourn teaches us and how the lives of these two wonderful and courageous teens further develop as they progress into their adulthood in the land of The Divide.
Rating: 5 E
The Whip Hand
Traverse Theatre & the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in Association with the National Theatre
It’s Dougie’s 50th birthday. His truly modern, extended family has gathered in the home of his ex-wife Arlene and her husband (and now his best buddy) Lorenzo along with his/Arlene’s college-bound daughter Molly, and his ex’s nephew Lorenzo (a mixed-race, black twenty-something raised by Arlene and Lorenzo after her sister abandoned him). Douglass Maxwell’s The Whip Hand, now in its world premiere at Traverse Theatre, begins more like a television sit-com with innocuous-enough jokes, ribbing, and bantering among the gathering family and lots of trips to the kitchen for more beers and gin/tonics (the latter for Arlene, who is chugging them down with a vengeance). Nothing much happens for the first fifteen or so minutes of the ninety in total; and some of the back-and-forth even gets lost between the multiple conversations and some of the heavy, Scottish accents.
But then Dougie rises to make a promised presentation (but don’t call it a speech) to his beloved family. A computer glitch has ruined the PowerPoint show he had assembled to illustrate his announcement and request, leaving only a large, antique-looking portrait of some bearded white man projected on the wall. Dougie has made a discovery about an unknown ancestor after being contacted on email by the Johnny Home Foundation — ancestor once rich and powerful and a sugar merchant ‘king.’ That bloodline association and the legacy — not a good one — that the great-several-times-over grandfather left has led Dougie to make a decision what he wants to do with the twenty-five thousand dollars he and Arlene had once put aside for Molly’s university education. His revelation, his resolve, and the possible consequences upends this party, divides the family, and opens Pandora’s Box for further revelations and surprises that send this rather plain-Jane play into realms both hilarious (for us) and horrendous (for those in the family). Whip Hand quickly becomes a buckle-your-seat-belts-and-hang-on affair; and the result is a remaining seventy-five minutes that quickly flies by on a journey wilder than any screaming roller coaster ride of any recreational park.
Tessa Walker directs the stellar cast with an eye to lure us all into a quiet evening; then to peak our interest in whether what he has learned is part of an Internet scheme or not; and finally to wham us up against the backs of our seats with a velocity of events, revelations, and climatic episodes that cannot help but leave us half-exhausted. Natasha Jenkins has created a beautiful set of a family’s living room in a house marking their financial well-being and good tastes; she has also created a set that will amazingly and literally explode as family disagreements turn into family world wars.
Like August, Osage County and so many other modern, family-oriented plays where clans gather for funerals, weddings, reunions, or parties, Whip Hand reminds us that practically all families — including probably our own — have secrets locked away that may best be kept in storage but are most likely, when least expected, to come popping their ugly (and for those watching, fully entertaining) heads out.
Rating: 5 E
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