“Brave” was one of the first words out of my companion’s mouth after seeing Flux Theatre Ensemble’s Sans Merci and I can think of no description better fitting. It’s brave of director Heather Cohn to stage a two-and-a-quarter hour play without an intermission (don’t worry – the production is highly successful at actively holding the attention that long). It is brave of playwright Johnna Adams to tackle lesbianism, political activism, college-age death, homophobia, John Keats and republicanism. Brave are actors Rachael Hip-Flores and Alisha Spielmann for so honestly, intimately and nakedly (in all senses of the word) portray the love between two young women. And brave is the Flux Ensemble, for presenting this meaty new tragedy.
Elizabeth, mother of the deceased Tracy, pays a surprise visit on Kelly, Tracy’s lover, one chilly, rainy day in Los Angeles. They’ve never met and Elizabeth is not even sure at first the full extent of her dead daughter’s relationship with the young woman. But Elizabeth has come to hash it all out – to learn the details of her daughter’s relationship and the details of her horrific death in Colombia three years prior, when Tracy was just a sophomore in college. Kelly and Elizabeth are both grieving and frequently defensive (and occasionally offensive - at least the staunchly Republican Elizabeth is) as the story unfolds – both in narratives and flashback scenes. There are lots of twists and turns, but the gist is that the shy Tracy met the politically outspoken Kelly in a literature class in college. Their friendship grows into romance and, just a few months after their meeting, Tracy decides to join Kelly on a trip to Colombia. Far from a school-sanctioned trip, the girls are meeting up with one other college student to help an Indian tribe peacefully resist the country’s corrupt government, army and a major oil company. The trip does not go as planned – Kelly permanently injures her leg (she now walks with a cane and limp) while Tracy is brutally murdered.
Adams’ script gives us a lot – perhaps too much – to chew over. The overall tone of the piece is very moving, but some of the plot points don’t feel believable. The very nature of Kelly and Tracy’s trip to Colombia seems implausible – the idea that they are single-handedly going to save the Uwa Indians and stop the oil industry, all without any sort of backing organization or even a fluency in Spanish, makes their mission seem more foolhardy than realistic or helpful. The character of Elizabeth is a mix of conflicting traits – a fierce Republican with an intolerance for homosexuality, she was also a literature major (and later teacher) focusing on romantic poetry. We are told that Tracy is exceedingly shy and afraid of speaking in public and she appears to have no friends, yet the character we meet is an exceedingly pretty blond who seems utterly comfortable with herself, opening up without hesitation.
Susan Ferrara commands the room as Elizabeth, finding nuance and tenderness, particularly in a heartrending silent moment of dividing up Tracy’s remaining possessions. Rachael Hip-Flores’ Kelly is young and in pain and she finds a few devastating moments of total honesty, reminiscent of a sad little child. Her chemistry with Alisha Spielmann’s Tracy is electric and the love depicted between the two is the most realistic and powerful part of the piece. Spielmann and Hip-Flores have no inhibitions with one another and are generous performers. Their romance is tastefully and beautifully directed by Heather Cohn, who does an overall great job of keeping the play moving at a good pace despite the heaviness of the material.
The title Sans Merci comes from a Keats poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, about a knight who is devastated after loving and losing a beautiful lady and discovers there are other “death-pale” kings and knights who knew the same beautiful woman. Adams’ dramatic and gripping play imagines the confrontation and conversations of two similar death-pale women, irrevocably changed by the loss of their beautiful lady.