Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Yellow Moon

For something so simple -- four chairs, four actors, no lighting cues -- Yellow Moon is pretty complex. Subtitled "The Ballad of Leila and Lee" (though only one of the twenty short scenes is technically a ballad), the play follows the tragic romance formed between delinquent Lee and "Silent" Leila after an act of self-defense goes horribly wrong. It's a familiar story, so David Greig presents it in a mix of narrative voices, the result of which is an often muddled adventure that is defined more by language than acting -- a work of forced poetic perspective. Yellow Moon is less like a ballad than like an elaborate ballet, in which the dancers narrate every step.

So here's the familiar part: the good girl, Leila Suleiman (Nalini Chetty), is secretly naughty, an alienated Muslim girl who finds her reality between the glossy pages of celebrity magazines, and who only feels alive when cutting herself. As for the bad guy, "Stag" Lee Macalinden (Andrew Scott-Ramsay), he's just an awkward boy trying to drink his reputation to match that of the notorious father who abandoned him. The two fall in love (though it's a static sort of love, not an electric one), and, after an accidental death, find themselves at "8. . . the part of the story where Leila and Lee go on the run to the highlands and nearly die." (It's also the part where Greig strains credibility so as to better spin a tall tale.)

And here's what's new: after establishing these standard tropes -- adoration from afar, tense meetings, brief arguments, youthful conflict, and awkward groping -- Greig turns his attention to the interior, making the cast into a chorus of mental synapses that fire off alternating thoughts in response to the onstage action. Hence the inevitable sex scene comes across half as shy fumbling and half as "He puts his hand onto your hip and under your t-shirt, but he's anxious, he moves too fast. He puts his hand up your top but you move it away because you want him to slow down. He puts his hands between your legs but you move it away because you just want him to breathe, calm and slow and then he says: 'Do you want me to finger you?'"

At these moments, Yellow Moon finds an exciting momentum that is almost spellbinding. However, these scenes are constantly broken by reminders that we're watching a play, or worse, by the secondary characters -- like Holly (Beth Marshall), a B-list celebrity who mirrors Leila's obsession, but fails to flesh it out; and Drunk Frank (Keith MacPherson), the groundskeeper with a secret who forcibly befriends the two escapees, but remains a blank albeit gruff slate. These interruptions prevent the play from spiraling into melodrama, but they also tightly cap the emotions of the show. Guy Hollands uncorks things as best he can: he puts the storytellers in the round, forcing them to play out to the audience, and by restricting props, forces the glorified stage directions (mental directions is a better term) to match the physicality of the action -- hence Beth and Keith, while describing Leila and Lee's near-death experience on a frozen pass, must compete with Andrew and Nalini's physical reactions to that imaginary cold.

What you get out of Yellow Moon is really a matter of what you'll get out of Brits off Broadway: it's a chance to sample a foreign style of writing, performed at a top-notch level. Though that style may not be to your taste, as I found, there's still plenty to admire in the attempt.

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