THE SEA HORSE
at the Roxy
The Sea Horse is a frustrating play. It aims at a gritty yet poetic naturalism, but its central dramatic conceit–bringing together a “tough, disillusioned” barkeep and a “romantic, compassionate” seaman (as press materials describe them) in a seaside bar to battle their way through to falling in love–is ultimately contrived. It’s the kind of play that purports to show “the way people really love each other” (also from press materials) but instead creates a stagy “reality” verging on melodrama.
Fortunately Quando Productions’ The Sea Horse, despite a rocky first act, verifies the power of committed acting to imbue any material with emotional truth and dramatic power. Anne Reifsteck as barkeep Gertrude Blum pulls out all the stops, allowing the last 20 minutes of this play to devastate her; she dives into an emotional chasm from which she has hardly emerged even after her second curtain call.
Three moments from Reifsteck’s performance simply make the show, all of them near the end of the second act. After spending most of the play at once desperately in need of the seaman Harry Bales and terrified of real intimacy with him, Gertrude finally reveals an episode from her past: she suddenly shoots across the stage and recounts witnessing her father’s murder at the hands of a couple of thugs. What makes this potentially strained theatrical confession and catharsis so powerful is that Gertrude tells her story to the wall. Director Buff Lee places Gertrude as far from Harry as possible at this moment, yet she speaks as if he were next to her. Or as if someone were next to her–the someone she so desperately needs to trust but whom she can’t find in Harry. The speech is powerfully sad, especially since Reifsteck delivers it almost matter-of-factly.
A bit later, Harry, who has returned to Gertrude after one of his nautical excursions, pulls a small object poorly wrapped in brown paper from his duffle bag, then offers it to her. She refuses to open it, so he does the honors, revealing a white silk wedding dress, which he then places in her lap. When Reifsteck touches that beautiful fabric, a floodgate opens in her. Gertrude, this hardened and bitter woman, is suddenly and terrifyingly opening up. The wall that she has had in place for so many years is crashing down. Gertrude wants to dive into the sensual folds of that dress while at the same time wanting to tear it to pieces. Reifsteck lets this moment rack her body, as she stifles the screams of agony that threaten to overcome her.
How perfect, too, that the object that wreaks such havoc goes through an analogous transformation itself. What begins as a crumpled brown paper chrysalis becomes a beautiful white dress. And not just any dress, but a wedding dress, which symbolizes an important ritual of transformation.
Finally, when the play is almost over, Gertrude regains her composure and stands calmly on one side of the stage, sending Harry on his way. Harry stops, thinks for a moment, and then announces, “I ain’t going.” These are the words that finally and unexpectedly crack Gertrude, sending her into brutal sobs as she howls repeatedly, “I don’t trust you!” These words physically rip through Reifsteck’s body. In an instant she is transformed, she is in pieces. It’s exhilarating to watch an actress allow herself to be so deeply affected by the dramatic moment.
John Braun as Harry Bales is in a way an apt foil for Reifsteck’s Gertrude. Reifsteck is clearly working very hard onstage. When her effort is apparent, as it is through most of the first act, Gertrude rings false. But when Reifsteck stops working and simply allows the work to affect her, Gertrude becomes fully real. Bales, on the other hand, seems to hardly work at all. He is utterly unself-conscious from start to finish, and also unaffected by anything emotionally. Certainly he has some range, but Braun seems to have chosen not to go very deep in his exploration of Harry. He keeps himself distant from the character, not fully embodying him but rather suggesting certain aspects of him.
Some might fault Braun for this kind of characterization, but I find his emotional stasis refreshingly honest. He isn’t forcing anything, trying to convince us that he feels something when he doesn’t. In a sense he’s not “acting” at all, relying on particular theatrical signs and gestures to communicate intention or feeling. Instead, Braun simply says his lines, lets them spill out of his mouth, without affectation or premeditation. Some of Braun’s moments work–particularly his delightful deadpan preparation of a breakfast of ungodly oatmeal–and some don’t. But through it all, Braun is genuine and unpretentious.
Lee’s direction is generally clean and efficient. She gives her actors great liberty, as they cross and recross to and from each other, yet they never wander. Movements seem fully funded. A few inept details are unfortunate, such as Harry’s entrance in dry clothing after he’s been stranded in the rain. But Lee makes the most of an utterly bare-bones performance space, never adding unnecessary decoration.