A Seattle playwright's new, soaring work

Robert Schenkken's By the Waters of Babylon at Seattle Rep narrows his usual large canvas to an intimate story of two characters groping with the torments of exile. Suzanne Bouchard's performance alone makes this a must-see production.
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Suzanne Bouchard as Catherine and Armando Duran as Arturo in Robert Schenkkan's <i>By the Waters of Babylon</i>. (Chris Bennion)

Robert Schenkken's By the Waters of Babylon at Seattle Rep narrows his usual large canvas to an intimate story of two characters groping with the torments of exile. Suzanne Bouchard's performance alone makes this a must-see production.

Exile takes many forms in By the Waters of Babylon, the Robert Schenkkan play which just opened in a new production at Seattle Repertory Theatre and runs through March 2. Arturo (played by Amando Durán) is a writer living in exile from his native Cuba. He has become inwardly estranged from his creative self. Catherine (Suzanne Bouchard), the reclusive widow who hires Arturo as her gardener, exiles herself at nights to the living room, where sleeping with the noise of the TV gives her the illusion of human company "without all the messy bits."

Even music – according to Arturo as he describes the essence of Cuban son – is born of the longing for lost homelands, a stirring together of equal parts from the melancholy of Spanish colonizers and the sad songs of their African slaves. And music is the condition to which Schenkkan's play frequently aspires. Soaring lyrical fantasias provide his characters with an escape from their respective plights of bitter alienation. His script weaves together a diversity of discourses: rambling small talk, snappy one-liners, confessional monologues, and those rapturous poetic flights.

The Seattle-based playwright is best known for his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle (given its world premiere at the Intiman back in 1991). He is an active screenwriter (including the recent film adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American and the miniseries The Andromeda Strain for the A&E network). Schenkkan wrote this new play on a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which premiered it in Ashland in 2005. The Rep is presenting the first Seattle production.

The heavily plotted Kentucky Cycle, a six-hour epic divided into two evenings, sprawled with overreaching ambition as it charted two centuries of American mythos, only to become boxed in by a preachy, tendentious monotony. With his new play, Schenkkan set himself a challenge at the other end of the spectrum. Babylon is a study in intimacy. It spans less than 24 hours and involves virtually no plot beyond the back-stories of its two despairing, middle-aged characters and the chance encounter that brings them together.

Catherine, the subject of malicious gossip by the neighbors, has been living alone since the death of her professor husband. She hires Arturo from a lineup of laborers to tame her chaotically overgrown backyard into some semblance of order. The play's first half revolves around a jittery pas de deux as Catherine chattily tries to break the ice with the initially laconic gardener. There's obviously more on her mind than having her weeds whacked.

After a few mojitos, Arturo mesmerizes Catherine with a sudden outpouring of eloquence. Passion turns to compassion as she learns of his harrowing escape from Cuba on a flimsy boat. Castro's thought police can no longer censor his work, but Arturo now stifles himself with inescapable feelings of guilt.

In the second half, as they spend a stormy night together, misunderstanding threatens to exile them back to their separate, wounded worlds of self-loathing. Catherine reveals the extent of her own fragility. A deeply abusive relationship with her husband which still haunts her after his death has left her shattered. Desperate to free them both from this impasse, Arturo reawakens his creative instincts. "To change something, first you must imagine it," he tells Catherine as they embark on a shared visionary journey.

Schenkkan may have reduced his theatrical dimensions in this play, but his scope remains ambitious. His theme is nothing less than the possibility of redemption by both love and art. As a result, Babylon teeters uneasily between epiphanies of heart-rending sincerity and moments that feel too contrived. This becomes especially apparent in some of the awkward, even melodramatic transitions in the second act, when the playwright's strategy requires him to modulate from a stock-in-trade naturalism to a transcendent magical realism.

Throughout, Schenkkan displays a gift for a lyricism of extraordinary beauty, ranging from provocative metaphors to the pared-down, imagistic simplicity of an opera libretto. But his script is as overgrown as Catherine's unkempt garden with heavy-handed symbolism. Arturo burns his censored manuscript and rubs the ashes into the sightless eyes of his father, a blindly faithful believer in Castro, while Catherine preserves the cremated ashes of her hated husband. A thunderstorm sends the couple scurrying inside, where they later express their desire to be washed clean of the past–just one instance of incessantly recurrent water imagery.

Bouchard's magnificent, memorable performance by itself makes this a must-see production. She builds every facet of her character with a dazzling command of nuance, bringing an injured grace to Catherine's self-deprecating volatility. Bouchard lays bare the soul of what Tennessee Williams once termed "the fugitive kind." She hovers uncertainly between desire to be "gently crushed" and fear of connecting. (Indeed, Catherine occasionally echoes one of Williams' heroines in the rather gothically pitched narrative of her husband's death.)

Durán, who starred in the original Ashland production, imbues Arturo with a tender poetry. He commands attention in his long monologues through a masterful sense of pacing and musicality and fully exploits the variety of Schenkkan's language. Curiously, though Schenkkan wrote the part specifically for him, Durán seems less comfortable with some of the script's troublesome transitions in mood–particularly as he struggles to understand Catherine's sudden leap to anger in act two.

The production values are outstanding. British director Richard Seyd deftly manages the play's volatile mood changes (subtly abetted by York Kennedy's skillful lighting) and maintains a sense of interaction even in the long stretches when one character is listening. While the landscapes in Babylon are mostly recreated from the imaginations of its characters, Michael Ganio's garden is an extravaganza of weeds which morphs into a more promisingly verdant aspect when seen from the bedroom in act two. Christopher Walker's minimal but effective sound design recreates the drenching heat of an Austin summer day followed by a cleansing, cathartic thunderstorm.


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