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“Blackbird” at the New Ohio Theater: Reckoning with Trauma and Its Aftermath

A review of the play by David Harrower that revisits the Lolita trope, strips it of glamor and replaces it with the abuse of the young girl by her obsessive groomer

by Stefano Morello

Francesca Ravera and Lenny Grossman in "Blackbird"

Kim T. Sharp brings David Harrower’s Blackbird back to New York City. Una and Peter —interpreted by Francesca Ravera and Lenny Grossman, respectively—engage in a gut-wrenching ninety-minute exchange that unravels a three-month relationship from fifteen years prior. The play successfully reworks the Lolita trope before the audiences’ eyes—it strips the trite narrative of the nymphet and her obsessive groomer of its novelistic excitement, and replaces it with the trauma that stems from the relationship between a twelve-year-old girl and a forty-year-old man.

Francesca Ravera.

In Sharp’s rendition of David Harrower’s play, the pitiless confrontation between the abuser and his victim takes place in a trash-filled office break room. While the audience is, at first, overwhelmed by a junk-heaping stage, the eye loses track of it when the back and forth between Una and Peter picks up. It is not until the few dull moments of the play that the litter on stage comes to the fore again, and again, like debris from the wreckage of their relationship in the psyche of the two protagonists.

A poorly fit business suit, a belt flip-phone holder, and the growing frustration towards disrespectful employees speak of the clean slate and the almost-but-not-quite good life that Peter (formerly known as Ray) has built for himself in the aftermath of his three-year sentence for statutory rape. More than a moral and an emotional threat to his new life, Una is, quite literally, Ray’s past coming back to haunt him. Her spectral recurrence in his life, allows him to face his own ghosts and to question the narratives that he has crafted to make sense of his past self’s actions.

The echo of their relationship continues to speak in Una’s present—the past just hasn’t passed for her and confronting the image of her abuser that she, or her traumatic experience, has created appears to be an unlikely attempt to make it through a fifteen-year long impasse. Yet, throughout the play, both Peter and the audience are oblivious to her intentions. Is she after revenge, or redemption?

Their bodies get closer to and then further from each other. They move back and forth, dodging the garbage on the floor, then in a circle—their movement on stage mimics the restless pace of their confrontation. At times heartbreaking and disturbing, the emotional rollercoaster of the play brings Peter from predatory to pathetic and back—as he lingers between the rationalization of his offense and the disassociation with it.

Francesca Ravera and Lenny Grossman in “Blackbird”

Grossman’s interpretation is key to showing the nuances of a problematic and yet vulnerable character, without ever crossing the line by offering an apology of child abuse. His vain attempts at picking up garbage that doesn’t quite fit in a heaping, broken garbage can parallel the character’s attempt at cleaning up his life.

As per Una, Ravera is impressive in swiftly moving her character from childlike naivety, to prepubescent romanticism; from restlessness to distress. Her body on stage performs, rather than just recounting, the inevitable consequences of Peter’s misdeeds. Further, Ravera’s diligent deliveries manage for some dry humour to cut through the negative affect of the play.

The audience was especially touched by the protagonists’ trip down memory lane, to the time and place of their last rendez-vous before Peter’s (then-Ray) arrest. They felt Una’s heart pounding in both fear and excitement; they shook their heads at Peter’s depraved longing, and the regret that followed. The play invites a reflection on memory and post-memory, and the real and imagined relationships between abusers and their victims. If the garbage on stage works as the metaphorical texture of the characters’ trauma, it especially does so when, in the only moment of catharsis in the play, Una and Peter engage playfully with it; in a moment of reveling and revelation that sees them play in the ruins of their psyche. Yet, as the curtain fell, Ravera’s talent in representing the echoing effects of trauma left the audience wondering if her confrontation with Peter ever happened, or whether it was a figment of her imagination, an unattainable attempt to find closure.

Blackbird premiered at the New Ohio Theater (154 Christopher Street) on September 14, and is expected to run through October 3. Directed by Kim T. Sharp. Starring: Francesca Ravera (Una), Lenny Grossman (Peter); set designer: Amy Gallacher; lighting designer Matthew Deinhart; stage manager (Kaitie Fann).

To purchase tickets visit this link.


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