It could be heartbreak or romance: A couple, sitting on a park bench discuss whether they should break up or get married. Deciding on the latter, the man proposes, using a ring that was previously thrown into the trash can. The couple kisses and walks off into the sunset. The audience gets ready to applaud — but the scene is not over yet. A homeless woman walks out, her hands lingering on the rim of the trash can. She looks out to an unknown point in the audience and begins to sing.
“Never mind, I’ll find, someone like you,” she belts Adele out to the now empty park. Only when she finishes her song does the audience begin to applaud, somewhat hesitantly at first, unsure now how to feel about the conclusion to “Swans,” the first play performed in Plays in the Park, a mix of short plays, Shakespeare and songs, now running the Promenade Playhouse.
Was the homeless woman intended to serve as a cipher or was she merely an interlude between acts? It is hard to tell. That ambiguity might be just what Brian Connors, the writer and director of the production, was going for. Plays in the Park explores the common themes of commitment, trust and betrayal, but the plays never leave the audience with the satisfaction of a clean ending.
The first performance of the night, the aforementioned play, “Swans,” begins with the couple fighting because the woman, Suzanne (Tiffany Kieu), a professional dancer, wants to get married and have a baby, but she is worried that her lover, an artist named Bill (Fabien Luszezysyzn), won’t be able to financially support their life together. Kieu delivers a strong debut performance as Suzanne, a Rockettes dancer. Her lithe movements and compelling eye contact draws the audience into the fight that the couple is having.
Luszezysyzn, meanwhile, utilizes his European charm to play the suave, starving artist, Bill. But Suzanne’s boyfriend has doubts of his own. He is worried that by getting married he will lose his creative freedom and get shackled down by his in-laws.
The couple clearly cares for one another, but they also understand that respective aspects of each other’s lives will cause them discomfort in the long run. Though the couple decides that it is better to suffer together, when the act ends, the issues that set up their fight are still looming between them. Who knows what the future will bring for them? Is the right decision for two artists with little income to get married and bring a child into the world?
The actors do a good job leaving the audience with food for thought. Though there are moments in the play where both Kieu and Luszezysyzn feel like they are reading straight from the script, overall, they manage to pull together strong performances. One is left rooting for them to end up together, though curious what their lives will be like five years from now.
Each of the four short plays does that, providing some closure but leaving the audience with some ambiguity. Of all the plays,though, “Oxymorons” might be the one that resonates the most with the audience. Two brothers with very different lifestyles meet up at the park zoo. One, Joey (Ralph Radebaugh) is a brash businessman who recently suffered a huge financial loss. The other, J (John Jester), is a mellower, more modest individual. One gets the sense, however, that he might have settled in life — that he could have gotten more from it if he tried. Though Jester’s character, J, gets somewhat lost in the background during Joey’s rhetoric, because his character is mellower, it is understandable that his performance feels at times more muted.
During the play, as the brothers watch a neurotic polar bear pace back and forth, Joey explains his financial woes. At first, he comes off as shallow and spoiled.
However, after he starts talking about his business (a citrus farm in Florida that was devastated by an early frost) and how his insurance refused to pay for the damages (because the insurance company had demanded a sky-high premium for him to be protected by an early frost), he becomes a more sympathetic character.
Radebaugh does a good job making Joey real and accessible for the audience. It would be easy to paint him as foolish for choosing not to spend the money to buy insurance for his crops, but the issue is more complex than that. (“They’re happy to sell you flood insurance in the desert,” Radebaugh says bitterly as Joey, voicing his frustration with the system.) Is the crop failure entirely his fault, or is the system itself the factor really at fault? Is he just an unfortunate pawn in a larger game?
As the polar bear continues to pace, J does his best to console Joey, it is clear that the two brothers could not be more different with their life philosophies, and there is nothing J can say that will get through to his brother. the scene eventually ends, with neither brother able to see things from the other’s point of view.
More so than the plays themselves, the most memorable part of the night is the incorporation of Shakespeare soliloquies and contemporary music. The elements are really what makes the short plays stand out and give the production as a whole a fresh, edgy feel.
Despite the interesting dynamic though, the only problem with the music and Shakespeare prose is that they feel, at times, thrown in for no reason.
In a production that is thematically about the ambiguity of life, it is hard to criticize elements in it for being too ambiguous. Nevertheless, the music and Shakespeare sometimes comes off as a little bit too much of a non sequitur, making the production as a whole feel too disjointed.
Still, the elements succeed in establishing an interesting, thoughtful vibe. When the final play “Marcia and Marcus,” finishes, Leah Ludwig (who plays Marcia) comes out and sings “Please Don’t Leave Me” by the artist Pink.
The words drive home the anger that the final play carries and leaves the audience with something extra.
One might not always understand the meaning behind all of the elements in Plays in the Park, but as a whole, they provoke emotion — and at the end of the day, that is what matters when one leaves the theater.
Plays in the Park will run from Feb. 16 to March 23 Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. The show is approximately 120 minutes with intermission.
Tickets: $20.00 – All performances $5.00 discount for seniors and students.