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THEATER REVIEW Laura and the Sea
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Kate Tarker

At: Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 N. Ridge Ave.. Tickets: 773-334-7728; $38. Runs through: Dec. 8

"The mind is a tricky camera," observes a character in Kate Tarker's dark and quirky comedy receiving its world premiere from Rivendell Theatre Ensemble—insight explaining the convoluted progress of memories slow to develop ( we're talking pre-digital photography analogies here ) and even slower to arrange into a coherent narrative.

The event precipitating manufacture of such a narrative by the employees of a New York travel agency is the suicide of a co-worker during a company weekend cruise off the coast of Long Island. The late Laura's kin take charge of her interment in California, but the craving for closure spurs Laura's comrades to launch a commemorative blog in her honor. Faster than you can say "Rashomon" though, contradictory reports of the deceased's final moments on this earth begin to surface.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross once divided the process of grieving into five stages, but sudden self-inflicted deaths show a propensity for generating their own subset of responses. Initially, everybody agrees that Laura was sunny, kind, generous and perpetually cheerful. Gradually, however, individual impressions emerge: Pretty young Mary recalls Laura as a supportive big sister. Closeted gay Joe mourns the loss of his role model ( and quasi-maternal crush ). Shy Stan keeps his counsel, hiding in the shadows of the office machines and gorging on candy meant for clients. Boss Jack recites polite platitudes, but cannot disguise his enthusiasm for the agency's new space travel program. Then there is office manager Annie, who doggedly confabulates alternative scenarios to the superficial relationship she and her peers shared with the woman whose departure mocks their belated empathy.

This lesson in mindfulness could have made a timely parable for an increasingly extrapersonal age, but Tarker insists on cluttering up her story's presentation with visual gymnastics connected to the conceit of the action transpiring in blog format: animated conversations conducted in soundless pantomime, sometime silhouetted behind cubicle walls, but more often meant to convey the muted sound of censored—oops, redacted—confessions. ( Exceptions include a desktop basketball game that evolves into a group grapple, as well as Jack's vain attempt to conceal his absence at the funeral following an alcohol-fueled binge through the utilization of a photo-montage assembled from advertising copy. )

Rather than coast on cute actorly tricks, director Devon de Mayo has instructed her cast to focus on the guilt suffered by the survivors in allowing their comrade to slip away unnoticed—remorse inspiring them to heed her barely-registered advice and implement changes in their own lives: Joe decorates his desk with rainbow flag, Stan ceases his petty thievery, Jack discards his on-the-job whiskey ). The interruption inflicted on the order of the universe by Death cannot be mitigated by the promise of interplanetary escape, but by striving to improve our stay on this earth.

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