If your idea of a fun night at the theater involves witty repartee, toe-tapping songs, or seething interpersonal drama, you’re probably not going to want to see Ronda Cooperstein’s “Shana Unsettled,” now at the Fells Point Corner Theatre through July 15th.
However, if you lean toward the cerebral, embrace didactic plays and absurdism, are a fan of Sam Beckett or Jean Paul Sartre, you’ll find this work intriguing entertainment.
“Shana Unsettled” reminded me a bit of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” as well as Sartre’s “No Exit,” in that the characters do not appear to be connected with our reality, but exist in a somewhat parallel world whose inhabitants may or may not be alive or even truly exist beyond the perception of the play’s central character, Shana (Kelly Cavanaugh).
Shana is the widow of Michael (Jamie Driskill), a soldier, who, despite being dead, appears late in the play, upset that his combat boots haven’t been cleaned. Shana is plagued by periodic visits from a pair of Jewish vagabonds, Beni (James Robert Giza) and Hadi (Jamie Driskill), who appear in dress and manner out of place and time as they sip tea and listen to 1940s tunes on a record player.
Like the characters Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s “Godot,” Beni and Hadi are strangely comical, rereading old newspapers, producing hot tea and coffee from pots in a large travel trunk, waiting for something or someone, we’re not sure what, though Shana seems to think their goal is to move into her rustic cabinesque home.
Shana is visited by Deborah (Alisa L. Brock) who seems to represent the establishment as she admonishes Shana for not following the rules of whatever society – is this a country, a commune, a military dictatorship? – this happens to be.
In fact, Shana spends much of this play being admonished by the other characters, Deborah, Hadi (who asserts change must be made by “force” versus Beni’s tendency toward pleasant discourse), and her Grandma (Judith Pojda), who yearns to get away from the war-torn reality of which she is a part and return to “the old country,” though want that country is, we are never told.
Shana is certainly unsettled through the course of this play, finding little solace or comfort during any of these assorted visitations—her sole source of focus seems to be on finding her cat, Topaz, who has disappeared, perhaps taken by the soldier, Amos (James Robert Giza) with whom she has had a brief affair. Shana appeals to God for help, and speaks as God in reply, promising to give her aid, though that aide never appears to be forthcoming.
It would seem that Topaz, the only character we do not see (though do occasionally hear with a disembodied, plaintive “meow”), is the only one to have any sense, seeking escape from a hellish existence where nothing seems real except the bombs and explosions that periodically go off, indicative of the war that is raging—though against who, again, we never know.
The ensemble cast does a fine job in this somewhat disjointed play that moves from scene to scene with little to indicate why the transitions are taking place. As my theater companion remarked, the play is interesting, but what exactly it is about is somewhat a mystery. When Shana finally packs her bag and departs, one wonders why she didn’t leave this dismal landscape earlier? I had had the sense like the characters in “No Exit,” escape was impossible, but perhaps this leads us to a major point of this play—that whether the demons that afflict us are born of our own minds or not (as Sartre notes, “Hell is other people”), the decision to endure it is always a choice. We can change, if we have the will and desire to do so.
Directed by Jim Knipple and Janel Miley, “Shana Unsettled” is part of the 31st Baltimore Playwrights Festival and runs in the mainstage (Godfrey Stage) at Fells Point, 251 S. Ann Street, Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. with select Thursday evening performances. For more information, visit www.fpct.org.