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Theatre in Review: Abyss (The Play Company)

Carter Hudson, Nicole Balsam. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The disappearance of a young woman has profound effects on the lives of her friends in Maria Milisavljevic's new play, which casts a low-level spell of depression across the stage. Karla, who lives somewhere in Germany, stepped out to the grocery store one night and never returned. Described as having green eyes, red hair, and freckles, and toting a big yellow bag that says on the side, "Good girls go to heaven; bad girls go everywhere," she hardly seems like the type who could vanish into the mist. But as the days elapse -- and as neither the police nor the local press evidence much interest in her fate -- three of her friends dedicate themselves to finding her: the play's narrator, known as I; I's sister, Sophia (also Karla's roommate); and Vlado, Karla's boyfriend. Apart from Karla's mother, who makes a brief, anxiety-ridden cameo, they appear to be the only people in the world who care about what has happened to her.

Vlado stops sleeping, looking much the worse for wear as he roams the city, seeking any useful bit of evidence; in moments of stress, he begins reciting poetry, apparently trying to calm himself with formal arrangements of words. Sophia becomes increasingly obsessed with the young woman's fate, putting up hundreds of posters around town, alerting people to Karla's disappearance; her attitude becomes ever more embattled, her comments increasingly brittle. I enlists her boyfriend, the warm, easygoing Jan, to create an online forum, allowing them to spread and share information about Karla. Jan, the only non-tormented member of the cast of characters, is blissfully ignorant of the fact that I feels a certain ambivalence about their relationship, that she and Vlado are ex-lovers, or that they are about to fall into bed once again as they continue their increasingly fruitless search.

Written in 2013, Abyss seems to prophesy many of the discontents of today's Europe, in which the dream of continent-wide prosperity and freedom has devolved into a landscape of dislocation and exile. I, Sophia, and Vlado are from the former Yugoslavia and it is clearly suggested that they are not entirely at home in Germany, never more so than when they are interrogated by the police about Karla's disappearance., Then again, I and Vlado are both haunted by the memory of violence committed during the years that the country broke apart; Sophia, who is younger, is less scarred and therefore shut out of their intimacy. I and Sophia are both Croatian; Vlado's father is Serbian -- and his mother is not to be discussed. (We are also told in passing that he saw his village burned to the ground.) His private torment isolates him from the others. The search for Karla sends them into other forms of alien territory, including their city's Russian district, which is presented as a sinister and desolate place, abandoned by the police, where some of the residents lead sordid existences, living in construction trailers. They eventually come across Franz, the mysterious, possibly homeless, man who may hold the key to Karla's disappearance, and who is a psychologically scarred survivor of World War II.

There are other, more personal, alliances that often prove to be perilously tenuous. The cheerful, contented Jan is never going to be the right man for I, who shares too profound a bond of pain with Vlado. I, Vlado, and Karla also formed a kind of trio whose contours are not fully explained, although we are told that Karla repeatedly drew three hearts on the heels of her shoes in a kind of tribute to their intimacy. And I, the narrator, can't quite shed the memory of the trip the trio took to the lake, when she and Vlado went swimming out over what she calls "the abyss."

Closer to a Michelangelo Antonioni film than a Gone Girl-style thriller, Abyss never makes anything dramatically engaging out of its mysterious scenario. The script is a dense web of memories, dreams, allusions, and insinuations, all of them pieces in a puzzle of political and spiritual exile. The playwright's narrative method is deliberately cloudy at times; for example, the police's lack of interest in Karla's fate remains baffling throughout. But the real difficulty is the characters, who tend to be disappointingly thin rather than intriguingly enigmatic; Milisavljevic hasn't developed the knack of giving each of them a distinct profile. The extensive use of direct address doesn't prove helpful; at times, Abyss resembles a prose piece occasionally tarted up with dialogue scenes. And there are irritating intrusions, such as the series of speeches given by Sophia that constitute directions for killing a rabbit and preparing it for dinner -- that are too heavily freighted with symbolic meaning. Under Maria Mileaf's direction, all three actors -- Flora Diaz (I), Nicole Balsam (Sophia and several others), and Carter Hudson (Vlado and Jan) -- often seem a step removed from their characters, even when shouting in anger or raging in despair. Hudson admittedly does a solid job of distinguishing between the two men in I's life, but it often feels like all three are searching for a way into their characters' heads.

The set, by Neil Patel, is as abstract as the script, its principal features being an upstage curtain of clear plastic strips, a refrigerator, a table, a couple of chairs, and two televisions that periodically remind us how much time has elapsed since Karla disappeared. Matthew Richards' lighting adds some moody color treatments to the action. Katherine Roth's costumes and Bart Fasbender's original music and sound are solid achievements.

Eventually, Abyss' emotionally foggy atmosphere proves alienating, even after, in a final twist, we learn Karla's fate and I and Vlado's complicity in it. At one point, I, the narrator, describes the sensation of being in a thriller, adding that thrillers are "scentless." I'm not entirely sure what this means, but, as an avid reader of thrillers I will add that the best of them -- say the works of John Le Carré, whose view of contemporary Europe is as stark as anything here -- are more redolent of real life than the arid meditations of Abyss. -- David Barbour

(17 November 2015)

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