Friday, January 27, 2023

Review of The Art of Burning a new play by Kate Snodgrass


Review of The Art of Burning a new play by Kate Snodgrass

By Andy Hoffman ( Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene Correspondent)

The Huntington Theater has staged the world premiere of Kate Snodgrass’ THE ART OF BURNING at the Calderwood Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts. Directed by Melia Bensussen, the Artistic Director of the Hartford Stage, the play moves to Hartford at the end of its run in Boston, giving audiences all over southern New England plenty of opportunity to enjoy being among the first to embrace this great new drama.

The play runs a rapid-fire 90 minutes without intermission. It opens in a legal office with Patricia and her divorce mediator waiting for Jason, Patricia’s estranged husband, so they can all sign the agreement ending the marriage. Beth, their 15-year-old daughter, has become the final sticking point in arriving at a settlement. Mark, the lawyer, has a long-standing friendship with Jason, as Patricia does with Mark’s wife Charlene, relationships that reveal different approaches to the compromises that sustain – and sometimes break – a marriage.

Snodgrass opens THE ART OF BURNING with Patricia recalling for Mark a play she’d seen the night before with Charlene, a production of MEDEA. Patricia defends Medea’s murder of her own children as the only ways to protect them from a worse fate. Mark regards this as a sick choice. Given the vulnerability of Beth, on the cusp of adulthood in a world that seems uncertain about the rights of women, the play renders the monsters of MEDEA as extremely real to Patricia, asking what responsibility she bears to protect Beth.

Snodgrass and Bensussen have chosen to temporally jumble the narrative, revealing bits of the backstory – from how Patricia and Jason met to the ambiguous certainty between Mark and Charlene – at crucial moments of the negotiations. Rather than upsetting the narrative of THE ART OF BURNING, the jumping back and forth in time holds the plays together with remarkable insights into the characters and their motivations. With the exception of Beth, the characters have no costume changes, and the minimal set changes keep the focus on the dramatic resolution. Bensussen uses some remarkably strip lighting, built into the set, to enhance the emotional tug in key scenes.

THE ART OF BURNING is also deeply funny. Every scene includes laughter, often stemming from the cluelessness of the characters. When Patricia tries to explain her concerns over Beth’s emergence into the adult world, Mark asks, as though he’s hip to contemporary social revolutions, “Are we talking about micro-aggressions?”

Adrienne Krstansky does a remarkable job with the role of Patricia, resolving what seems to begin as a portrayal of an unstable woman into that of a committed parent. The other performances delineate the characters with sympathy and precision. Clio Contogenis, in a relatively minor role, captures both the audience and the teenaged Beth with passion and depth.

An odd misstep in the program provided the only negative note. The fraction of an interview with Kate Snodgrass left a false impression of the play. I recommend either not reading it at all before seeing the play.

Kate Snodgrass served as the Artistic Director of Boston Playwrights’ Theater for several decades and taught in Boston University MFA playwrighting program for just as long. Melia Bensussen has taught directing at Emerson College for many years. The cast includes professors and instructors from Brandeis, Suffolk and BU, so the atmosphere at the Calderwood Pavilion overspread a scent of homecoming. I hope that joyful feeling transfers to the Hartford Stage for its March 2nd debut there. Riding on the strength of the THE ART OF BURNING and its production, it should.

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