By Martin Reinhardsen
Friday, February 27th, on a whim, my roommate and I descended into Purchase College’s Underground Theater: the subterranean performance arena located in the basement of the Performing Arts Center. Following the succession of paper flyers depicting the scarcely designed advertisement for Kelsey Lurie’s senior project, we skulked through the concrete passageways and crept down the many staircases toward the student production of Martin Crimp’s The Country.
The play’s central characters, Corinne and Richard (impressively performed by students Matia Emsellem and Alex Crowell, respectively), were already in character and on stage, with Matia’s anxious Corinne cutting up paper at a table center stage and Alex’s weathered Richard standing, with his back to the audience, upstage in dim blue light. The third character, Libby Larkin’s strung-out Rebecca, was also present as the audience came streaming in although I didn’t notice her at the outset as she was reclined on a sofa that faced upstage and away from the audience. This setup heightened the instantaneous engagement with the audience and prepared us for the intimate experience that would develop over the course of the play’s five scenes.
The bare construction of the set elicited an intense sensation of absence and loss. Whenever a character was out of the room (all action being bottled within the living room), they were still seen albeit turned away and sitting in a chair, continuing this connectivity with the audience and informing us of the dejected relationships between the players. Though were situated directly beside the technical crew, when the play begun each of us instantly forgot of their presence and we were placed directly into the unfolding drama between a man, his wife, and a mysteriously unconscious drifter whom the husband carries in off the street. At the start of the play Richard has already laid Rebecca down on the sofa and so the plot’s central narrative contention has already been set in motion (the ambiguity of which develops better clarity as the story unfolds).
The effective evocation of the performances (all three of which rival some of the best off-Broadway acting I’ve seen [and I’ve seen a great deal due to my familial linkage to the performing arts]) and these pre-formulated constructs of both the play’s content and the stage’s construction (in conjunction with the Underground’s eerie environment) solidified the end goal of live theater, being: the undivided attention and investment from the audience. I’ve seen student-produced plays in NYC that have attempted similar thematics, though where The Country succeeds is where others have stumbled: Lurie trusted her actors and her own direction without anxiously depending on the set’s layout to emphasize action. Other productions are quick to pile on flair and theatrics in order to impress the audience or aid the performances. Lurie’s confidence shines with the set’s scarcity: the very absence of detail is thematically linked to the absence between a married couple who’ve fallen out of love. Actress Matia Emsellem indicated this parallel when I put forth my supposition to her about Lurie’s intention, saying, “Kelsey wanted the presence of absence, she wanted us to fill the empty space with our performances rather than have set decoration distract the audience from our intimacy.” I may only speak for my roommate and myself, but due to our reactions afterwards in accordance with the air of the room, director Kelsey Lurie masterfully executed what she set out to accomplish, conducting a theater experience unlike that of which I might have expected from a collegiate production and communicating a professionalism and command of the craft that has stayed with me until now as I sit here to inscribe this provoking encounter to you.