Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 28, 2008
ALEC: But listen, while we're talking about torture, let's imagine that a nuclear bomb has been planted in Manhattan.
HUGH: Oh no.
ALEC: And you've got the person who planted the bomb in a cell, for questioning. And the bomb will go off in half an hour.
ALEC: And the guy won't talk.
ALEC: Would you use torture?
Welcome to the world of Conversation Storm, a remarkable new one-act play by Rick Burkhardt. It's on a double bill with a unique percussion piece called Great Hymn of Thanksgiving (about which more in a while), performed by The Nonsense Company, which is Burkhardt plus actors Ryan Higgins and Andy Gricevich. This hour-long pairing exemplifies what indie/fringe theatre is supposed to be; if this kind of thing interests you, see this show.
The conceit of the play is simple. Three men—Alec, Godfrey, and Hugh—are in a restaurant. Hugh is an insomniac. Alec, whom the other two haven't seen since high school, tells an astonishing story about his sister. Godfrey is just trying to get the waiter's attention ("Hey could we get some water over here?"). And then the subtext stops being subtext and this play, which is about torture, which IS torture, now finally trades explicitly in talk about torture. At one point someone points out that torture is a kind of theatre in which the victim is both actor and audience.
Conversation Storm makes discomfort palpable for its audience: there are places in it that are hilariously funny and awesomely tragic at the same time. But we don't laugh; that's how in command these guys from The Nonsense Company are. The chronology is scattered, out of sequence: the scene numbers are announced by the actors as the play unfolds, but they skip forward and back. Our eyes and ears remain open and aware despite the disorientation; despite the progressively, exponentially more horrible imagery that's expounded by the actors. The play forces us to listen, while it talks about torture.
Great Hymn of Thanksgiving, the 20-minute short that precedes Conversation Storm, is unlike anything I've seen in theatre before; it's billed as a play for "three speaking percussionists," which means that Burkhardt, Higgins, and Gricevich speak lines (from found sources, mostly news dispatches from the War in Iraq) while providing astonishing sound accompaniment on a few traditional musical instruments and a host of objects usually found in a kitchen or dining room (water glasses, pots, pans, plates, forks, etc.). It's amazing to watch, though I found myself more fascinated by, and therefore aware of, the effort behind it (as opposed to its impact on me).
Burkhardt, Higgins, and Gricevich—who currently are based in Madison, Wisconsin—prove themselves artists to be reckoned with in this, their New York debut. We need them to come back with more of their work if this double-bill is any indication of what we can expect from them.