There’s a whole lot of shaking going on at Shelterbelt where Amy Elizabeth Schweid’s Across Rhodes world-premieres. Not Jerry Lee Lewis stomping at the keys but ceiling lamps quiver and people are known to tumble. The spirits are not always willing.
In Schweid’s first produced full-length play, two out of life’s mainstream play guitars and sing fine songs. A third tries to control these manifestations. Rhodes Bar is the setting. A sometimes-lively place in a remote town where people come from miles around to admire whatever talent takes over the tiny stage.
Joss, from somewhere further off, aims to stay a while and give performing there a try. She hasn’t reckoned on being in a place like this. Bartender George OKs her hanging on for a while, but hints at the history that has crossed this crossroad to make sure Joss knows what has transpired within these walls.
Sarah’s memories haunt Rhodes. At one time she loved Michael, who actually became a successful performer. Richard seems to be some kind of dark guardian, as if he feels responsible for Sarah. Soon Michael materializes. George can see what’s happening better than Joss; that goes with being in charge of Rhodes. But internal boundaries have ways of shifting.
Schweid unfolds a fascinating, imaginative, complex story about dramatic events. She punctuates the story with songs, songs which naturally fit into and flow with the story. And she has come up with sharp, sometimes humorous dialogue, even when discussing death. Expletives abound, BTW.
Schweid has written good songs, some with pointed lyrics. Sarah’s first, “Keep Your Head Down,” has eloquent melancholy and then surges forward with urgency. Duets include one combining the here and now with a so far unseen presence. All have appealing folk style written and performed with skill and talent by Katie Miller as Sarah, Jayma Smay as Joss and Thomas Gjere as Michael.
Miller and Gjere give their characters real substance. Smay’s performance equals theirs in believability. Craig Bond’s Richard convincingly becomes more sinister while, as George, Meganne Horrocks Storm pulses with vigorous personality. Director Elizabeth Thompson has elicited these good performances with insight and inventiveness. And at one significant moment, she fills the space with dramatic tension.
Re: that space, making what happens seem real, attendees are up close and personal witnesses given Ben Adams clever transformation of the venue into a club setting. The audience is seated at tables, surrounded by posters offering Happy Hour specials and being served genuine crunchy snacks in heart-shaped bowls. Actual drinks, however, are limited to lobby service, as always at Shelterbelt, bought beforehand or at intermission and portable to the tables.
Schweid regularly performs with her own band, The Ragabonds, and has acted in plays at UNO and the Playhouse as well as directed and choreographed at UNO.
Clearly she has the talent to create original theatre. That spirit is present and alive.
Across Rhodes plays through February 18, Shelterbelt Theatre, 3225 California St.Thurs. (2/1, 2/8, 2/15), Fri., Sat: 8 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. & 2/18: 2 p.m. Tickets $12-$20. http://www.shelterbelt.org/