Erik Ehn’s new play The Weak and the Strong is extremely ambitious. Not only is it inspired by St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans and the Hebrews, it includes dance, puppets, art, original music and acrobatics to varying degrees. Unfortunately, the storytelling is both confused and confusing. The extremely poetic nature of the script and dialogue as well as the non-sequiturs makes the play difficult to follow. The minimal design elements do not help the viewer one bit as to what is going on in the plot. As a performance piece this might interest some. As a coherent play, this must be deemed a failure.
Jasper, an aging rodeo rider, has a stroke but continues to ride. When his brother dies, he discovers he has a nephew Tullis he knew nothing about. Tullis comes to live with them and Jasper is a great influence on him. Joining an international troupe of old timers, he travels all over the world with his disapproving wife Karen in tow. Tullis appears to follow and have his own adventures. Jasper dies and Karen puts her energies into Tullis until she too becomes too old to take care of herself.
The play uses a narrator and characters speaking in the third person which distances the material from the audience. While the play mentions being in Rome, Istanbul, France, Spain, etc., nothing in Pancharee Sangkaeo’s scenic design or staging suggests any of these places. Her unit set is rather bland and colorless. One assumes that the play begins and ends in some western town where rodeo riders congregate but we are given no details as to where Jasper and Karen live. A ship crossing the Atlantic breaks up but nothing is made of the fate of the characters. While the puppets designed by Jane Catherine Shaw are attractive (three kinds of birds and a horse) only the horse (who suddenly speaks) is integral to the story.
Faith is mentioned several times but does not seem to influence the characters to any great extent. St. Paul is also referred to in passing several times. The program notes state the play is “a contemporary look at the mysterious compulsions that lead us to do what we wouldn’t and avoid what we would.” If this refers to Jasper’s excessive drinking and dangerous rodeo riding at well past his prime, this describes almost all western films without giving it a religious connotation. Benjamin Ehrenreich’s lighting design includes some effective blue horizons over the prairie and a fantastic orange-red fire sequence (sound design by Jimmy O’Connor) but generally makes little impression. Three characters are named Angel in the program and act as a sort of Greek chorus but their function is as obscure as everything else.
Under Planet Connections Theatre founder Glory Kadigan’s direction the actors are suitably western but exhibit no chemistry between them. James B. Kennedy’s Jasper, Onni Johnson’s Karen and John Kroft’s Tullis might be characters in a modern western but seem sorely adrift in this confusing adventure. On suspects that Tullis is supposed to be quite young but as Croft is the tallest actor onstage it is difficult to know how old he is supposed to be when he enters the story.
The multitalented Yael Haskal works initially as musician and narrator and later puppeteer but is unaccountably called Junco Bird in the program. Fig Chilcott, Kim Savarino and Perri Yaniv as members of the ensemble as well as manipulating the puppets are sorely underused. Lisa Renee Jordan’s Western costumes are extremely realistic but belie the surrealism in the play. David Tenney and Kayte Zhang are credited as composers for the snatches of music and song that punctuate the play.
Erik Ehn’s title The Weak and the Strong taken from St. Paul may refer to the bad choices that some people make that others avoid, but it seems to only reinforce the clichés of most western films. The storytelling and production are mostly so obscure that the play becomes tedious as it is so difficult to follow. With a 70-minute first act, the play feels extremely long and overwritten. It is to be hoped that the play finds an audience that can follow its circuitous path to its conclusion and in its poetic speech and metaphors.
The Weak and the Strong (through December 18, 2022)
Planet Connections Theatre
The Downstairs, La MaMa, 66 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.lamama.org/shows/the-weak-and-the-strong-2022
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes including one intermission