Queen City Theatre Co.’s debut production is nothing if not ambitious. Beginning with a young couple sneaking into an abandoned grain silo, it veers from contemporary bars to piratical romance on the high seas to the truly cosmic. At the play’s heart, though, is a recurrent interest in what it means to change and what it means to stay the same; why might we choose to stick with what feels safe; why might we want to transform ourselves; what happens when change is inevitable?
The play is a series of narratively disconnected two-handers, reminiscent in some ways of works like The Blue Room, in which continuities are less important than thematic reflections and repetitions. Here, there is ambiguity; some of these characters could be the same figures, the couple who fall asleep in the silo remembering their first meeting and past encounters. But there are ghosts in the silo, as the man in the couple (Michael Blackwood) jokingly tries to persuade his partner (Devlin Ford). Their bodies are haunted by memories of different encounters, different attempts to reconcile a moment of change. In a lovely pastiche of an early modern epilogue, placed a few scenes before the end, Conduit (Ford) moves among the audience and apologises for the play’s rough verse, while drawing attention to the template-like quality of the bodies who have become the vessels for these words.
The recurrent interest is in the pressure of change – whether pressure to change, or the pressure of change. In one of the most straightforward and tense scenes, a woman visits a hairdresser to get the same cut as always, the cut that she had asked to be her ‘forever hair’ some years ago. But the hairdresser has been reading philosophy, and freaks her out with his admission that he never gives the same haircut, partly because the hair itself has changed, and partly because he believes his clients don’t really want to go backwards – they are always delighted when he gives them something slightly different. The creepiness of the hairdresser in this scene is nicely complex; he clearly thinks he’s doing his clients a favour, but the woman’s discomfort with his violation of consent and his refusal to listen to what she is telling him she wants means she walks out of the appointment.
There is often a gendered element to the scenes here. Blackwood’s characters are often overly pushy and often fail to listen to what Ford’s characters are saying. The highlight of the production is a beautifully performed scene of a director (Blackwood) drilling an actor (Ford) on a faux-Shakespearean speech. The fact that both actors and writer-director Thomas K. Prater are enrolled in or graduates of Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare & Performance program perhaps unsurprisingly means that this is a particularly authentic scene in its working through of actor exercises, its parody of banalities and unhelpful ‘advice’, and its use of the format to contest power. Here, Ford’s character is desperate to get through her speech and to let the language speak; Blackwood’s character refuses to let her finish the thought. But she turns it around on him, calling him out on his wish to fix the speech’s meaning, and asking him to listen to her and to allow the scene to live in the live moment of performance – to risk change and discovery. In another vignette of a couple meeting in a bar, Blackwood’s character spends much of his time ‘splaining to Ford’s, explaining her experience of being told she was special by an IQ test as an attempt to indoctrinate her into a cult, a trick he would never fall for. And in the opening frame narrative, it’s Blackwood’s character who thoughtlessly locks the two of them into a silo.
But the play also resists an easily gendered narrative about pressure to change, especially as change itself is sometimes a positive and sometimes a negative. The play’s centre-piece is a beautifully staged conversation between Earth and Moon. Blackwood stands in the middle of the stage, turning slowly, holding a globe in front of him; around the perimeter of the stage, holding a moon sphere, Ford orbits him. In a clever bit of pacing, their orbits are slightly out of time with one another, and they’re also both slowly rotating on their own axis, meaning that they begin with the Moon facing an Earth that is looking in the opposite direction; rotate into a position where neither can see the other, and eventually move to a place where the Earth can see the Moon and finally both can see one another. The dialogue in this sequence is superb, evocative, mournful, and often funny, as Earth and Moon exchange profound insights into their ability to see and understand one another. The two are in a constant but always changing relationship to one another, and neither can understand themselves without the other’s perspective. And when some cosmic event happens which throws the two of them off their axis, they can do nothing but yield to the change.
Change is inevitable, says the unpleasant hairdresser to his client, but he’s right. Change comes for everyone, and while some of the characters in The Silo are right to resist it, there’s also an understanding that change will come and that perhaps the best we can do is meet it on its own terms. While the play ends on a surprisingly sentimental note – a re-statement of heteronormative love that seems oddly conservative in the wake of the fascinatingly different kinds of relationship envisioned by the different scenes – what resounds is the potential that emerges from many of these vignettes to learn to understand change, to learn to listen, to learn to understand the drivers of change and the factors that lead to resistance. It’s a play that insists that we need to know others in order to know ourselves, and that if we can develop true orbits – the play’s spatial manifestation of perfect love – then we may be able to finally see and know ourselves.