A Review of Tarragon Theatre’s “Abyss”

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It’s not often that I go into a play having no idea what it’s about, but that’s what happened last night when a friend and I spontaneously went to see Maria Milisavljevic’s Abyss at the Tarragon Extraspace. I was in for a pleasant surprise as I found the show (aptly described on their site as a “lyrical thriller”) to be one of the most intriguing and moving pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time.

Admittedly, the show didn’t catch me right away; the first 15 minutes or so felt a little stale as actress Cara Pifko recited lines in a style that felt dated and forced. Like the sort of thing you see in a sketch comedy making fun of actors. However, once the pace picked up and she was required to show real emotional intensity, the choice in casting Pifko was clear; her raw performance was chilling, especially during the climatic moments (I won’t ruin the story with more details) and by the end I was on the verge of tears. Her chemistry with fellow actor Gord Rand was also dead-on, and the scenes in which the two were lovers were especially poignant.

Rand’s performance was captivating throughout and I was impressed by his ability to seamlessly transition from the cold and distant Vlado into the quirky and loveable Jan. The depth of emotion shown on his face was startling and I often found it difficult to look away.

The quiet star of the performance was undoubtedly Sarah Sherman, who, while playing secondary characters stole the show with her electric energy and range. She was equally compelling and convincing playing concerned sister Sophia as she was as a frightened young Russian mother, or the drunken derelict Göran. Sherman’s ability to create such distinct characters and flow through them effortlessly was refreshing and impressive.

Artistic Director Richard Rose staged the show and did justice to Milisavljevic’s beautifully composed piece. Rose chose to have the performers linking hands though nearly the entire play, a choice that may sound bizarre on paper but was really startlingly effective. Designer Jason Hand created a simplistic set that was transformed dramatically scene to scene with his brilliant lighting design (props to stage manager Nicola Benidickson for keeping on top of all those cues!). While at the top of the show I found the sound design to be a little overbearing, by the halfway mark Thomas Ryder Payne succeeded in creating a moving and often beautiful soundscape. I am unsure of what exactly should be credited to choreographer Nova Bhattacharya versus director Richard Rose, as the entire show was stylized and almost dance-like, but however the two created the piece they did an excellent job, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a simulated sex scene that was neither uncomfortable or laughable!

Finally, credited must be given to playwright Maria Milisavljevic who composed this dark and unique story, first in her native German and now in a wonderfully translated English form (this was the English language premiere of the show). Milisavljevic skillfully juxtaposes a beautiful and heroic poem, Nis Randers (1901) by Otto Ernst with an honest and modern story of love, lust and loss. Each character is compelling and complete, and the chemistry between them should be equally credited to playwright and performers. The interjection of a disturbing “how-to” on skinning rabbits breaks up the fluid movement of the dialogue and is surprisingly effective. Overall, I found the play poetic and utterly captivating, and am thrilled to see such a well-written work by a young female artist.

Abyss opened Wednesday February 11, 2015 in the Tarragon Extraspace and plays until March 15. For show dates and ticket information see their event page.

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