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Review: Paragon Ends Season on Lighter Note with ‘Parlour Song’

Paragon is ending their last season in the Kim Robard’s Dance space with a bit of levity. Well, relatively so. Parlour Song is one of the newest plays written by Tony- nominated Jez Butterworth, who is most recently known for Jerusalem which garnered Tony award for Johnny Byron for Best Leading Actor. His previous plays, including several produced previously by Paragon, offer little relief from darkness, but Parlour Song takes a comic perspective on suburban angst. Ned, who demolishes buildings for a living, is wondering why everything is disappearing — actual, physical possessions from his life are vanishing. Who can help him regain a hold on his life (and his things)? His neighbor Dale, who is also helping him get into shape, or his wife Joy, who is becoming more distant by the day?

Projections Provide Captions for the Audience

HE SAID: This is my first experience with Jez Butterworth, to be honest. We were in New York right before Jerusalem started previews, unfortunately, and I haven’t had any other opportunity to see it produced. My only experience with his material is word of mouth accounts about how confusing it can be, and while I don’t think “confusing” is the right word for it I can kind of see where they are coming from. Do I get the moral of the story? Probably not entirely. Do I get the driving motivations for each character? I think I do, but I also think I could be wrong. While there are various things I am uncertain of, there are a couple important things of which I am certain – I was moved by the characters stories/actors’ performances and the play has stayed active inside me. Because the stories/performances were so good, I have been thinking about them since the show and trying to work out the things I don’t understand yet. It’s wonderful when a play can stay with you like that.

SHE SAID: I agree that parts of Parlour Song definitely have staying power. Parts of the play are very subtle, but other parts are written to hit the audience over the head. In particular, the play employs the use of a projection screen to emphasize a key message in each scene. These helped focus my attention, and calmed my worries of not being able to pick out the most important part of each scene, but I wondered if they were absolutely necessary. I came to the conclusion that they didn’t hurt the story at all, and they often encouraged me to think more about certain themes, so they were ultimately a benefit. However, they did detach me from the characters a little bit, making me wonder more about the point of view of the playwright than the point of view of each person. Although the roles were all brilliantly performed, I found myself observing the people who were being portrayed, rather than being by their side in their journey.

Performances Consistently Solid from Paragon Members

HE SAID: That’s interesting you felt that. I didn’t feel like those projections “hit me over the head” at all. They just felt like captions to me. Chapter titles that, like you said, helped emphasize certain elements of the story. In fact, I would say that the audience is guided well through the telling of this story  but not in pandering sort of way. Partly through the brief narrations from Dale, played by Paragon Co-Founder Michael Stricker, and partly through the use of those projections. Once I saw how the “titles” fit into the scene, there was the tiniest bit of me looking for when they would appear, but I never felt detached from what was happening.  To me, they heightened the mystery of the piece and the characters and, if anything, I ultimately invested more attention into the scene.

SHE SAID: I think I might have invested more attention too, my only point is that they didn’t help draw me into the characters. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, just a different kind of experience in the theater. Especially in this case, the play is short and funny enough, and so well performed, that I thoroughly enjoyed it without being strongly enticed into their world. I somehow liked the experience of the play without liking any of the characters as people, which if you think about it is kind of impressive. Although Stricker played Dale with a boyish charm that worked for him equally well in comedic and dramatic moments, I didn’t feel any strong desire to know the character better. Emily Patton Davies gave a convincingly chilly performance as Joy, and while elements of her performance were delightful, I didn’t find many redeeming qualities in her character. Paragon Co-Founder Warren Sherrill gave a touching performance as the angsty Ned. His performance elicited the most emotional engagement from me, but I still found myself pitying him from a distance rather than feeling strong, identified empathy for him.

Design and Script Evoke Notions of Two-Dimensional Suburbia

HE SAID: Really?! To me this play and its performances amazingly balances displaying an unfortunate reality and a moving emotional landscape, all while never losing the mystery the characters who don’t actually know themselves or each other. It’s chalk full of laugh out loud moments yet very affective throughout- even in the silent moments. One of my favorite moments was Warren Sherrill, as Ned, who said one line to an exiting character and turned around. The moment was silent but completely robust, full of thought and feeling. I could have watched that moment for minutes. The relationships are complicated and the motivations aren’t always 100% understood. There certainly were no easy answers in this piece, but that’s where I found the truth in this play.

SHE SAID: I did appreciate that the relationships and characters were all complex, and the acting was so great that I appreciated the execution of the craft. And as I said, I enjoyed it! My favorite part was actually the entire scene where Dale and Ned are working out — I could have watched Sherrill awkwardly run in place (sort of) for much longer. I took the meaning of the play to be something along the lines that suburbia has a numbing, distancing effect on people, so the fact that I didn’t identify with any characters so intensely that I feel like I’ve had a vicarious experience through them might be part of the message. The design choices also emphasized this unsettling two-dimensional homogenization of suburbia, making use of the large space at Kim Robards Dance for quite a bit of picket fence and three nearly identical house facades.

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Parlour Song Stirs Great Discussion

THEY SAID: Just like in the world of Jez Butterworth’s play Parlour Song there are some, but very few easy answers here. We saw things differently, felt different emotions, and were pushed by different moments – all while watching the same exact play. And, yet, we wonder if that maybe isn’t the overall point. The characters live similar lives in similar houses in the same neighborhood, and yet none of them really have put a pin in what is driving the world or themselves. And maybe that isn’t it at all. The only easy answers to the whole thing are these: Stricker, Sherrill, and Davies are wonderful talents giving remarkable performances, the show is hysterical, and you are sure to witness something you and your guests will talk about for days after.

For a full history and plot synopsis of Jez Butterworth’s plays, see the wikipedia article. Parlour Song plays through October 29 at Kim Robards Dance. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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