Sixteen folding chairs line the edges of a third floor Pearl District loft. With sheets of white cloth billowing from the walls, thick twine strung across the ceiling, and scuffed wood floors, the loft has taken on the eerie feeling of a floating ship--which, of course, is appropriate as Riders To the Sea is about ship wrecks, drowning, and emotional hangovers. The space is the latest resting place for Catamount Theatre, a heady performance troupe from Vermont by way of San Francisco.
The story behind Riders To the Sea is set on a dreary Irish shoreline. A mother has lost four of her sons to the sea, and is trying to dissuade her fifth and final from leaving. Her two daughters moan and worry about their lost brothers and the ghost that their mourning mother has become. At best, though, the storyline is secondary to the performance. The four performers--three young beautiful dancers and Ian Greenfield, the theater's director and bit-performer--use the storyline as a mechanism to examine the pain of loss and the dread of living.
When Liz Weber, who plays the mother, returns from off-stage after trying to stop her son from leaving, her steps are halting, heavy, and tense. Each time she moves forward, she lets out a sigh that is more a pained cough than a relief. It is a gripping show of what emotion looks like--not just the strained pain of Meg Ryan biting her lower lip but a kinetic misery. As well as any well-scripted lines, the effect of the movements throughout the play cleverly displays the sense of tension over the son's safety and the mother's bouts of sudden anxiety.
The two daughters, played by Amy Cassel and Abbey Pierce, are on stage the most. Both do an incredible job conveying the different layers of emotions. While calmly telling her sister that they should not disturb their mother with troubling news, Cassel's body begins to contort. Standing on one leg, her other leg painfully and tensely extends outwards, like an arthritic ballerina. Juxtaposing her calm words against this contortion aptly shows off the different layers of emotions--fear, anxiety, the impulse to protect her mother.
The primary shortcoming of the performance is its length: It's too short. At only forty minutes, the effect is an underwhelming and incomplete sensation, like waking up from a dream about gorging on a grand feast only to be still hungry. But, then again, the narrative is not the point; it is an aesthetic display about fear, misery, and remembering. And, at that, Riders To The Sea is a captivating and enchanting forty minutes.