Honey Fist, the newest play by August Schulenburg, starts off feeling like one kind of play, turns into another kind for quite a while, and then ends up going off in an entirely unexpected direction at its conclusion. I mean this, please realize, as a compliment: this meandering, rambling yarn—which is in part about the nature and power of the yarns (stories) that we create about our lives, for ourselves and for consumption by others—is lyrical and touching and profound.
Schulenburg's voice feels entirely distinctive in the world of indie theater at this point. I don't know anyone else who could have written this, for example:
I don’t hate you, I adore you. You’re like the opposite of gross, you’re like pure, and I don’t mean virgin pure, fuck virgin pure, like unicorn pure, you know?
Sometimes I think, if Justin hadn’t died, I might’ve been an actual artsy-fartsy artist instead of one hell of a drunk carpenter. Crazy how something like that alters your course forever. Sometimes I feel that other life rubbing up against this one, you know? Like I could just breach that invisible wall and reach into that other life, where he’s still alive, and I’m, you know, finding the shapes in shapes for real.
Unicorn pure ... finding the shapes in shapes: this is theatrical poetry, and Honey Fist brims with it.
Let me talk a little about the plot. Stu, Rene, Sam, and Sul are old friends from high school; now about 30, they still live in the same New England town where they grew up. Once a year they meet on the anniversary of the death of another friend from high school, Justin, for a night of drinking, smoking, and revelry. Justin was the golden boy in their circle, someone they all revered and loved, and his death all those years ago has colored their lives ever since.
What makes this night different from its predecessors is the unexpected appearance of another friend from that era, Joey. Joey is the one who got away and made good: he's now a successful Hollywood filmmaker, creator of a number of films whose storylines are all too clearly inspired by the lives and personalities of his old pals. Joey admits that he's about to make a movie about Justin, and he tells the group that the one who tells him the best story he doesn't know about Justin will win the brand new Porsche he drove up in.
With Joey is Gretyl, his current girlfriend—a huge music and movie star.
In the first of Honey Fist's four scenes, we get just what the setup promises, as the friends begin to tell their "Justin stories" in hopes of winning the car. But don't expect Schulenburg to stay stuck on that trope, or on the suspense movie storyline that soon follows. Yes, there's a mystery to uncover in this play that centers around what really happened to Justin the night he died. But the heart of the play is elsewhere, in the melancholic souls of these characters who, though still relatively young, feel so misdirected and used up.
It's Rene who utters that first quoted line above, upon meeting Gretyl, a star she has idolized from afar. And it's Stu who confides that second bit about how he might have wound up an artist. I want you to meet these people, all of them: see the play—which is directed very effectively by Kelly O'Donnell and well acted by a cast of six, led by Matt Archambault and Lore E. Parquet, who mine the depths of Stu and Gretyl with uncanny insight, and featuring Nat Cassidy (Joey), Anna Rahn (Rene), Isaiah Tanenbaum (Sam), and Chinaza Uche (Sul), all of whom bring their characters to raw and vivid life—and/or read it on Indie Theater Now. The rich humanity of Schulenburg's work is as stirring a theatrical experience as any on offer right now.