Through the Yellow Hour
nytheatre.com review by Adam R. Burnett
September 22, 2012
Conspiracy theory is easy for neurotics.
It plays into our basest fears and gives our anxieties a structure, a direction for our active minds to roam and for our nervous fingers to point; and even if it fuels our sleeplessness, we know that a theory can be applied and shared with others, that it will leave us less isolated. Through the Yellow Hour, a new play written and directed by Adam Rapp,supposes that a bombed out America has been occupied by Arabic soldiers (read Al Qaida?) that may or may not be supported by a larger corporate structure, the same corporations, it could be said by the conspiracy theorist, responsible for previous attacks on the American soil.
Set in a railroad apartment in Rapp’s Lower East Side—a setting that populates a majority of the playwright’s works, where attitude and rent has been stabilized since the early ‘90’s—our protagonist Ellen is trapped, holed up from the violence and deadly viruses engineered to destroy human kind or at least the population of New York. The city exists under the terrorizing control of Arabic soldiers, referred to as Egg Heads for their comically large white helmets. What their purpose is, what society they are attempting to set up, we never know, and neither does Ellen. Their presence in shrouded in the misery of chaos.
And misery is a weak world for Rapp’s terrifying world.
Ellen has been waiting for her husband to return, having left nearly three months ago for bread, never to return. Every sound, every entrance carries the possibility of his return, or of some reprieve, which the audience quickly crave as much as Ellen. The apartment becomes the site of exits and entrances where Rapp fulfills his narrative obligations to submerge us into this bleak post-Apocalyptic world. The play is so stark though that we are left exhausted, looking for any beam of light in the cavernous space of hopelessness.
The production is stellar and Rapp’s work as a director is deliberate and the performances he brings out are rich and powerful. The play, even with the constant soundscape, is quiet and he is able to capitalize on this to great effect. For the one hour and forty minute length not a single body moved an inch. We were completely arrested by the brutality of the events too. And this is a testament to the actors, obviously, especially Hani Furstenberg’s fierce and captivating performance as Ellen. Her fellow performers—Brian Mendes, Danielle Slavick, Alok Tewari, Joanne Tucker, Matt Pilieci, and Vladimir Versailles—are equally raw and vicious. Versailles’ turn as Darius in the final scene of the play is a saving grace of a performance.
The set takes you in as soon as you mount the stairs of the Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater. Andromache Chalfant’s inclusive design is one of the more impressive immersive sets I’ve experienced and Christan Frederickson’s sound envelops us, moves through us—air swirling, bombs blowing, helicopters chopping; but these design elements do not integrate into a cohesive experience, rather, they dominate as a means to prop up the troubled text.
At every turn, when Rapp can take the more challenging path, he chooses instead to explore his more immature and reliable tropes (i.e. on-stage nudity and the violence of modern relationships). As a playwright he addresses the complexities of an occupied America only on the surface, playing into the basest knowledge we garner from sound bites on CNN and the general fear of Islamic extremism. In this way, the play fails. The politicization of the prophetic is implicit, but dealt with in the most general way; as a result, many moments rest on the incredibly vague and faulty ground where racism, bigotry and sexism unintentionally take shape.
It’s always exciting to see an artist grapple with scary fantasies to their most nauseating core, but when the play finally arrives at itself it lacks the more generous elements of theatre, including depth, humor, and hope.