At first, you won’t know what’s going on, and the actors won’t seem to know, either. But that’s okay. Like the North Carolina Stage Company, be brave and boldly enter the world Daniel MacIvor and his da da kamera theatre company brought to perfection with MacIvor’s A Beautiful View. You will rarely see a better contemporary play, and you’re unlikely to see stronger performances, surer direction or a design scheme more harmonious with an unusual work’s demands. (The repertory schedule means you’ll need to make sure you know when to go, but that doesn’t take much effort, and it’s worth it.)
MacIvor and his collaborators invented an original, theatrical way to explore human relationships from multiple perspectives simultaneously. In works such as A Beautiful View, the lives of ordinary people — usually a couple, however loosely defined — are explored in more or less naturalistic reenactments of events from their personal histories. As frequently, though, the stage lights come up, seeming to place us in the theatre proper rather than a traditional dramatic setting; from there, the play’s characters continue to interact, reflecting on events from another standpoint altogether. (This isn’t the same as breaking the fourth wall. Though the actors do, on occasion, address the audience directly, they’re still on a very different plane.) It’s easy enough to follow — especially when the technique is as well-executed as at N.C. Stage — and you’ll appreciate the trick for how it helps flesh and round out characters much more complex and worthy of extended consideration than their abbreviated names suggest — “M” (Anne Thibault) and “L” (Bitch; and, yes, that’s her chosen moniker, not an epithet).
M and L are straight women who meet at a camping goods store. Confusion immediately ensues, primarily because, though they both love camping and fear bears, they also share a propensity to lie about who they are and what they do. (L, a hostess in an airport lounge, claims to be a bartender; M, mostly an office temp, touts her ukulele band, which doesn’t exist.) Soon, each thinks the other is a lesbian, and worries about an attempt at seduction. That concern proves justified, but their delicate dance may leave you as uncertain as to who makes the first move as M and L remain long after the night in question.
Despite a swift retreat to heterosexuality, and occasional gaps of years between encounters, few people are closer than M and L become. Together and apart, they live through the deaths of parents, numerous lovers and one marriage, too many jobs and too much unemployment. There is also betrayal, and though M and L share a motto— “Nothing is enough” — they must live their lives through before they completely understand what it means.
A great deal is demanded of performers in MacIvor’s plays; simply knowing where you are when can be a trial. In A Beautiful View, Thibault and Bitch are called on repeatedly to reveal and conceal vulnerability, confusion and outrage, and to limn the permeable boundaries of love. They also need to perform two songs — one original and one by Pat Benatar — which they do wonderfully. Each is a gifted, accomplished actor, unafraid to inhabit these all-too-human characters fully, and to give us complete access to the true emotion too often concealed beneath a professional veneer. Thibault’s latest work at N.C. Stage marks a welcome return. Bitch’s first appearance is a special treat; one can only hope to see more of her soon.
Director Jay Putnam, who also makes his N.C. Stage debut with two shows in this mini-rep season, is another real find. Rob Bowen, the scenic and lighting designer, brings his extensive experience to bear deftly, with simplicity and grace. This production also marks the last in town — at least for now — for the multitalented Hans Meyer, who’s heading to Alaska for more managerial experience. His sound design for A Beautiful View is, as usual, exquisite, and he will be missed.
But don’t miss this show. You won’t likely understand what’s going on when A Beautiful View begins, but it’s utterly engrossing and all comes clear in the end. Then you might well find yourself replaying, in your mind’s eye, what went before, seeing everything that happens from yet another, still more revealing perspective. You can’t ask much more of a night in the theatre than that.
A Beautiful View, by Daniel MacIvor. Now through July 19 at N.C. Stage. For tickets and repertory schedule, visit N.C. Stage’s Web site. Directed by Jay Putnam. Scenic and lighting design: Rob Bowen. Sound design: Hans Meyer. Props & costume coordinator: Barbara Taggart. Production stage manager: Connie Silver. With Anne Thibault (M) and Bitch (L).