By Stanford Friedman
An audience enters a theater under an implicit contract. For an hour or two we will forget where we actually are and, in return, the actors on stage will transport us somewhere fantastic. The Patch of Blue theater company, as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59, manipulates that bargain in We Live By the Sea, a captivating examination of an autistic girl’s struggles. Yes, we are transported, but rather than forgetting we are sitting in a theater, we are instead transformed into make-believe characters. Starting with the moment we enter from the lobby and Katy (Alexandra Brain) asks to touch each of us to confirm, in her mind, that we are there, it is clear that this is Katy’s world and we exist only because she needs to tell a story. Never have I felt so imaginary.
The tale that Katy tells is by turns fanciful and brutal. A 15-year-old orphan taken care of by her infinitely patient 18-year-old sister, Hannah (Alexandra Simonet), she is capable, though just barely, of attending a mainstream school and withstanding the abusive taunts of her classmates. Her best friend is an imaginary dog named Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace) and her playtime hours are occupied with rich fantasies where desk lamps become warrior princesses and a fishless fish tank brings the ocean to her bedroom. When a handsome boy enters the mix, another basic contract of drama is put to the test. It’s universally understood that the role of a good looking guy is to woo the older sister and make nice with the troublesome younger sister in order to gain favor. But this is not the case with Ryan (Tom Coliandris). He has come to their town to forget a tragedy and wants nothing more than to escape to Katy’s playland, a place much safer than his own tormented mind. Hannah just can’t catch a break.
Oceans are notoriously vast, which is a good thing because the sea is called upon here to support enormous metaphorical weight including, but not limited to, expressions of life, death, rebirth, lost love, lost parents and redemptive magic. At its symbolic peak, Katy reports that, “The biggest wave that the world had ever seen started getting taller and louder and coming right towards me and I could not do breathing or feel thinking in my head. It was so high now and my heart was going so hard it felt like all of me was beating. And it was the most magnificent I have ever felt.”
Still, we buy into the conceit, thanks to strong acting all around and the wonderfully immersive world built by director Alex Howarth and his creative team. Ms. Brain is nothing less than ferocious (And is there more apt a name for an actor locked so deeply inside her own interior monologue.). With fingers that never stop twitching unless she is violently pounding her chest, she is constantly in busy-minded motion, at play, lost in fantasy, or jolting to the stimulus of being touched. Ms. Grace provides humor, Ms. Simonet supplies sympathy and Mr. Coliandris offers compassion in supporting roles that bring balance to this work that was “devised” by a group of actor/writers rather than written by a sole playwright. Mr. Howarth gives us a galaxy seen through the autistic mind, full of haze and disjointed focus. Video on a sail-shaped screen takes Katy onto the water. Sometimes sweet music lingers in from two on-stage musicians, other times jarring noises disrupt the action. And because the audience is seated inside of Katy’s psyche, her imaginary dog constantly trots out into the house, demanding our attention from the center aisle, advising us to heed her master’s voice.
We Live By The Sea – Devised by Patch of Blue, directed by Alex Howarth
WITH: Alexandra Brain (Katy), Tom Coliandris (Ryan), Lizzie Grace (Paul Williams), and Alexandra Simonet (Hannah).
Josh Flowers and Julianna Zachariou, musicians; The Mason Brothers, Composers; Rachel Sampley, Lighting Design; Amelia Wall, Videographer; Will Monks, Video Design; Sofia Montgomery, Stage Manager. Produced by Patch of Blue and The Hartshorn-Hook Foundation at 59E59, 59 East 59th St., 212-279-4200, www.59e59.org. Running time: 90 minutes. Through Sunday, May 6.