Rough Approximations: A Devil Tale
nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
October 26, 2012
Tenement Street Workshop's gorgeous new production, Rough Approximations: A Devil Tale, begins with an argument about crab over dinner. A young couple, Teamora and Greg, sit at a restaurant with rather distinct matters in their heads. Greg is irritated that Teamora picked this restaurant in the first place, as the seafood doesn't get really tasty until later in the week. Teamora, meanwhile, has some unfortunate news about the future of their relationship. Also, she's on her way to consult a Beast. Why? Because, replies Teamora, he's "going to help me murder my father."
What follows, in flashback, is the tale of Teamora's chaotic upbringing in a small New England town, following the mysterious drowning death of her mother. As Teamora and her rowdy siblings look for clues that would explain the loss, they begin to realize that their combustible father, Ralston, must somehow be complicit. Their journey to adulthood and beyond, fueled by both revenge and discovery, forms the crux of this ninety-minute drama.
The script, by John MacDonald, works best when it lingers on its poignant mini-portraits of children in puzzled grief. "Do you think our dead mother is in the sun?" asks Teamora, when she finds her brother Elmo taking pictures of the sky. Indeed he does, and as the children collect disparate artifacts of their absent parent, MacDonald deftly demonstrates the pleasures and the limits of childhood imagination.
Director Eddie Prunoske has given these scenes an inventive and exquisite staging, helped along by Jonathan Cottle's inspired set and light design. Even minor moments have been meticulously crafted for the space at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, and I won't soon forget the almost monstrous image of the towering Ralston threatening his children from behind a green screen, or the gently-lit sight of Markus, the quiet child, blowing mournfully on a trumpet. Prunoske has a keen eye for blocking, too, and his use of diagonals is wise.
As the story pushes Teamora's siblings past adulthood, however, it begins to unfold in ways that are more plot-driven and less emotionally involving. I won't give away the twists that follow once Teamora does seek the assistance of the Beast, but I will admit to rapidly losing interest in them. For all the allusions to the story of Faust in the show's publicity material, Rough Approximations does not really have a mythic resonance to match its human drama.
The cast has been well-assembled -- in particular Carl McKinley as the hyperventilating Dustin and Cameron Michael Burns as the thoughtful Elmo. Keilly McQuail's gifts as an actress are undeniably enormous, though the blazing-eyed intensity she chooses for Teamora sometimes renders her journey inaccessible, and it seems that she could benefit from more grounded choices.(You often get the sense that she's speaking just past her scene partners, instead of with them.)
Landing in the middle of Halloween, Rough Approximations, with its references to the Devil, has an obvious seasonal relevance. But in fact, it feels more like a Christmas ornament: small, fragile, and wonderful to look at.