Angst at the Picnic

In some ways the play is as perplexing as its title. The latest world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater, Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange (a title I’m completely incapable of reading without singing it to the tune of Beck’s “Where It’s At”), features four people sitting around in a park making awkward small talk for 75 minutes. They’re two investment bankers and their spouses, and there’s some material in the play about financial shenanigans and the consequences thereof, which is a timely topic but touched on only elliptically. Instead there’s a lot of forced smiles, bizarre non sequiturs and existential dread. They’re almost all strangely childlike, like confused grade schoolers perplexed by the world around them.

George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berman in She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange. Photo by Pak Han.

George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berman in She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange. Photo by Pak Han.

Maya Linke’s intriguing set looks like a big slab of futon foam, with a curtain of origami crosses hanging down from strings in the background (only looking at the photos weeks later do I finally glean that they represent trees). This is the lawn of a park in a fancy upper-class neighborhood, where all four of them live. Sound designer Hannah Birch Carl populates the world with the sounds of birds tweeting, children playing and ice cream trucks passing.

Henry and Amy come there every weekend for some quality time together, although Zehra Berkman’s Amy seems to be counting the minutes until she can go home and go back to work. But a smile is fixed to her face as she tries to keep the conversation light and pleasant because this is their agreed-upon day of rest, even when they have no idea how to pass the time. George Sellner’s Henry, on the other hand, seems like an absolute innocent, filled with happy wonder at the world, less saddened by talking about a child dying at the hospital where he works as a nurse then by dropping his ice cream on the ground.

Max and Sara have lived in the neighborhood for years and have never set foot in the park before. When they enter they’re seemingly terrified and ludicrously overdressed, he in a suit and she in a fancy red dress (costumes by Miriam R. Lewis). Played at a high pitch by Kevin Clarke and Marilee Talkington, they’re wild-eyed and jittery, in a state of near panic. When Max eventually takes off his shoes and stands on the grass, it’s as if he’s never done so before in his life. Talkington’s Sara keeps blurting out seeming non sequiturs in an indeterminate accent, as if desperately eager to please and unable to read anyone’s reaction to her. (On a side note, it’s impressive how completely transformed the curly-haired Berkman and Talkington are by their wigs. Berkman in particular looks like a completely different person.)

The two couples dislike each other—or at least Max and Amy do—but they’re forced together by some perverse sense of etiquette, even though they spend as much time tossing barbs as they do disclosing their innermost anxieties seemingly at random amid amusingly inane small talk and casting about for some tiny moment of human connection. But again, they do this in a bizarre way, more like small children than adults. Amy is the only one who seems to have any presence of mind and composure, and even she panics about pebbles for some unfathomable reason, or for no reason at all. All of them keep hoping to catch a glimpse of a dog—not any particular dog, just any dog, because dogs make everything better. “Now that I’m a man, all I want to do is grow up and be a man,” Max says, but the opposite seems to be happening. They’re regressing.

Now, it turns out that some pretty lousy things have happened to one of the couples, so there’s reason for them to be distressed, but that doesn’t seem to be why they talk this way and act this way. At least as directed by M. Graham Smith, this isn’t some semirealistic depiction of shock so much as a kind of absurd clown show. That playground goofiness defuses any sense of social satire that may or may not be potentially in the dialogue, and you can’t really feel anything for the characters because they’re not much like people. But the bizarreness of their behavior and quirky humor of the dialogue makes them fascinating to watch, as if this is a zoo exhibit of that rare species, the upper class.

She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange
Through April 12
Crowded Fire Theater
Thick House
1695 18th Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #28 of 2014, attended March 24.


About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment