Tuesday, October 27, 2009


"This is not a family," shouts Daniel (Daniel O'Brien), for once taking a stand against his (s)mother, Margit (Kathryn Kates). "This is just you and me fighting all the time." While that establishes what a family isn't, the task Ashlin Halfnight faces in Balaton is trying to pin down what exactly it is. It's a task made even trickier by his choice to set the action in the afterlife, the device being that the afterlife knows who belongs and who doesn't. It's for this reason that Daniel and his wife Vivian (Jessica Cummings) are in the same place as Daniel's mother, even though these two women despise one another; the big question of the play is whether or not Vivian's granddaughter Sabrina (Sadie Scott)--who may or may not have Daniel's blood--will be permitted to join them.

As Sabrina wanders through limbo--appropriately enough, the aisles of the audience--the actors on stage are forced to relive moments of their lives, as if by testing their own bonds, they might be able to pin down what connects us. It's a good, original concept, one that is only occasionally bogged down by superfluous meditations on nationality (they're from Hungary, where Lake Balaton is located). It also allows Halfnight to showcase his romantic side without succumbing to it, trusting that he can sum things up in a vivid image. (For instance, the first time they meet, Daniel just stares at her for a full three minutes, while Viv, who is far more confident, allows him to: "Go ahead. I'm here. Look.")

Director Kristjan Thor is once again called to help Halfnight communicate these terse moments, though it's a harder task--their previous effort, Artifacts of Consequence, has a fixed, albeit science-fiction-based world, and Balaton lives in an undefinable void. Thor goes with abstract minimalism--three white walls, upon which images of Viv's mourning son, Julian (Peter O'Connor) are occasionally projected and distorted. But this conflicts with a set of eight podium-shaped tombstones, behind which objects from the real world are hidden: vacuums, phones, and other props that help the dead relive their pasts. Considering how the scenes are rooted in the physical rather than spiritual aspects of life, it's unfortunate that the play ends up visually divided.

Linguistically, Halfnight has settled on a more rhythmic approach here than in his other work, a choice that, while occasionally artificial, helps to pick up the pace of transitions and to lend more substance to the world. It also ties things back to a Blake poem that his characters keep quoting, one that discusses hope, death, and how we're all connected. Appropriately, this is where Halfnight, Thor, and the cast cohere, using the direct physicality of their bodies along with the soft direction to evoke sad yet happy parallels, as in the way one scene compresses a fight Daniel has with his mother and a fight he's had with Viv, who has cheated on him.

The trick, done right, is in allowing these sad moments to transform into happy ones, to help us connect in the good times and the bad, to find the common purpose--togetherness--that is a funeral's only point. Once again, Halfnight has hidden a lesson in a fantasy, and while Balaton occasionally gets a little too leaden, a little too loose and airy, his work remains very much alive.

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