Julia Faulkner as Woman, Robert Schleifer as Man in University Theatre's Across a Distance.
Across a Distance by University Theatre is a multimedia performance piece that tells the story of Man, a deaf storyteller, and Woman, a scientist and operatic soprano, moored on separate islands in the sea, within sight of each other but unable to communicate. They are each joined by a whimsical, nonverbal companion: Man by a flock of cheerful birds, and woman by a tree, the design of which is the crown jewel of the show. Woman doesn't understand Man's sign language, and Man can't hear Woman's singing, but as time goes by, they form a bond and learn to communicate. This production opened Friday night at UW's Mitchell Theatre.
Man is played by professional deaf actor Robert Schleifer, who tells beautiful, engaging stories not with his voice, but with his hands, his face and his whole body. Unfortunately, the placement of subtitles high above Schleifer's head made it impossible to read the text and watch his performance at the same time. Fortunately or unfortunately, a few scenes into the show the subtitles disappeared entirely, at which point I had no idea what was happening for the remainder of the play.
Woman is played by internationally recognized operatic soprano Julia Faulkner, who has a breathtaking voice, best showcased on composer Scott Gendel's lovely "Your Voice/Your Hands." But where Schleifer has a few genuinely moving moments, Faulkner's performance flits along the surface, never connecting with a real sense of character or place. Most of her speeches are given with her back to the character she's addressing, instead directed at the fourth wall. As a result, we never forget she is an actor performing a part.
"This play is not an easy one to experience," director Kelly J.G. Bremner writes in the program. "We are asking you to engage with this play in a way that will hopefully delight you at times, but will also certainly frustrate you." Unfortunately, I felt frustrated almost the entire play. Without subtitles, I couldn't follow Schleifer's signing or much of Faulkner's singing. This confusion was clearly intentional, designed to create in the audience a feeling of frustration and empathy. Unfortunately, it simply alienated me. Without understandable dialogue, sincere feeling from the characters, or a story I could follow, I wasn't able to invest.
Playwright Nick Lantz is an award-winning poet whose reading I had the pleasure of attending just a few months ago. Lantz, who has an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a brilliant poet, but here he tries to do too much. No less than five different themes are referenced in the play's official description and I counted at least two others in the show itself. By focusing on so many disparate themes, the play never sincerely explores any of them.
With flat characters and a hard-to-follow plot, the emotional climaxes of the show (of which there are far too many) feel shrill and unconvincing. From a plot perspective, the magic of the story world is inconsistent, and there is no sense of history to these characters or place. I believe this play could have been a fascinating performance piece, but it borrows too many clichés from modern romantic comedies, creating an expectation for coherent plot, satisfying structure, and emotional resolve. Because the show is ultimately a performance piece and not narrative in the traditional sense, it fails to deliver.
The technical aspects of this show are the real stars. Set designer and dramaturge Kristin Hunt gives us a gorgeous set, sparse yet whimsical, with the most inventive representation of ocean waves I've ever seen. Lighting designer Chelsie McPhilimy creates a warm palette for the eye, and costume designer Jim Greco dresses the actors in rich, beautiful garments.
Reading the personal story of Faulkner and Schleifer's friendship, a bond that bridges the chasm between sound and silence, I was truly moved. I wish the play I saw on stage had captured that energy and depth. Everyone involved with Across a Distance is clearly a talented and passionate artist, but ultimately the show tries to be too many things and doesn't quite succeed at any of them.