Out of the Blue

Archipelago Theatre
At Sheafer Theater, Duke University
Through Feb. 28

Transformation is an irresistible subject for theater. Like last fall’s Raleigh Ensemble Players production of Metamorphoses, auteur director Ellen Hemphill’s accomplished new work, Out of the Blue, is concerned with human transfiguration.

But where the former’s view of Ovid encompassed the palisades of Elysium, the seas and the depths of the underworld, Hemphill chooses a somewhat smaller canvas. The playwright and director steers clear of those variegated holdings in afterlife real estate; of the gods themselves she wisely makes no claims.

But with longtime collaborator and Jungian psychologist Nor Hall, Hemphill does give careful considerationand a meaningful share of the stageto differently embodied versions of the Crow, that archetypal trickster figure termed the messenger of fate. In her dramaturge’s notes, Hall asserts that, “Crows just know,” describing their sudden, incongruous appearances in our lives as “a signal that something has unexpectedly shifted to create an opening that wasn’t there before.”

In Jan Chambers’ winged black costumes, and crowned with Torry Bend’s beaked headpiece masks, these dark companions shadow Hemphill’s human characters. Occasionally, they demonstrate joy or compassion, inviting comparison with the angelic characters of Wim Wendersor mildly wicked glee in improbable sequences devoted to corporate automated answering services, a troubled marriage and ill-advised reality TV game shows.

But in the main, Hemphill’s crows seem intensely curious, much more than any of the emotions above. They keep their sharp-eyed watch, minutely analyzing what seems to be the great enigma: us.

Though Jim Haverkamp’s mostly black-and-white video footage is evocative when projected on a series of movable panels at the back of the Sheafer Theater space, it’s hardly the most cinematic element in this production. Contrasting with the panorama of Metamorphoses, Out of the Blue‘s 18 or so scenes constitute a series of brief but affecting close-ups as they zero in on their specific subject: the moment of unexpected change itself, when an unanticipated event or realization forever alters these characters’ lives.

The assuredness in Hemphill’s amazing economy of expression deserves commentary. I’d guess that none of the scenes in Blue lasts longer than five minutes; in all likelihood, a number of them are much briefer. Still, the playwright effectively gets to the essence of her characters and their situations and gets out, without leaving us feeling cheated, rushed or not fully clued in. It’s an achievement abetted by sure-footed directorial transitions, a clearly stellar cast of actors, including Dan Sipp, Cheryl Chamblee, Derrick Ivey, Kathryn Hunter-Williams, Greg Hohn and Tom Marriottand dancers like Gina Kohler and Jessica Harris.

Yes, dancerssince Hemphill enlists no less than four other choreographer colleagues from her tenure as a teacher at the American Dance Festival to convey character and story in different parts of Blue. The most riveting example, aside from the crows’ individual gestures and movements, involves the sections where Jim Morrow’s taut prisoner writhes, dodges and vibrates in agony in a cold interrogation room while the intolerable memories of his life unspool again and again.

Allison Leyton-Brown’s string quartet mines expressive minor-key variations on childhood songs and later provides the base for moving song adaptations of poems by Nina Cassian and Rabindranath Tagore.

Zimmerman’s Metamorphosis suggested that the gods’ dramatic transformations essentially ratified changes already wrought by their human subjects’ own feelings, drives and actions. But in Blue, Hemphill probesbut doesn’t entirely resolvethe dilemma of causality and fate. In a final musical number, the ensemble asserts in one chorus, “I did nothing wrong.” But can they all conceivably believe this? Is fate some obscure combination of action, emotion and inactionor just the way the fortune cookie crumbles? These questions and others are left to the audience.