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How We May Know Him

[The following review was posted on Variety.com on Thursday, April 26th.]

Going back to tribal times, theatre rituals have been used to ask the pressing questions of the day—weighing in on natural disasters, wars, and personal crisis—so it has always been essential that audiences are able to interpret what they experience.

In Paragon Theatre's world premiere of Ellen K. Graham's How We May Know Him, we are challenged by a level of discourse and action of such symbolic remoteness that even after reading the director's notes which translate the forces at work, we are left without a discernable catharsis—despite the well-drawn performances of the principals and the chorus.

(top to bottom) Emily Paton Davies as Val and Gina Wencel as Simone
(top to bottom) Emily Paton Davies as Val
and Gina Wencel as Simone
Photo: Paragon Theatre
Graham's metaphysical examination of the female psyche pits Chaos, Reason, Innocence, and Disillusionment against each other in a dramatic arc derived directly from the New Testament. Val, a puritanically-dressed fundamentalist with an apocalyptic rap is the archetype of Chaos, surfacing first in the collective dreams of the Female Chorus and later directly intervening in the lives of three representative women.

Drawing on an archetype right out of "American Gothic," Emily Paton Davies' Val is chilling in her relentless, flat-line determinism, gaining converts for her movement by having them each copy by hand her own handwritten autobiography.

(top to bottom) Barbra Andrews as Wren and Suzanne Favette as Nicola
(top to bottom) Barbra Andrews as Wren
and Suzanne Favette as Nicola
Photo: Paragon Theatre
One of her first disciples is Wren, the lesbian housewife of Nicola who's away on business. Like her name, Barbra Andrews' Wren takes flight quickly, flitting about with her newfound raison d'Ítre, foisting her copy of Val's saintly memoir on a passerby. Andrews hits all the right notes in characterizing the innocent element of the female psyche, falling naturally into childlike reverie and excitation as she extols Val's message.

When reason, in the form of Nicola returns home, she finds her world upside down and sets out to discover the cause. Suzanne Favette brings a fierce, calculating edge to Nicola, whose security-oriented job provides her with some insight to Val's secretive power.

Gina Wencel as Simone
(ina Wencel as Simone
Photo: Paragon Theatre
Graham's writing takes a comedic turn with Simone, a commercial actress of a certain age who represents the disillusioned aspect of the quartet. Gina Wencel's larger-than-life portrayal lightens up the proceedings, particularly a hilarious sequence involving her nose job.

The life of Val can be seen as a rough representation of Jesus' story with a feminine twist, including the insinuation of miracles and an alternate reality beyond this life and parallels to Judas' betrayal and the crucifixion as well, but it is also only one aspect of a larger metaphor for a psyche struggling to come to make sense of a world gone haywire.

For audiences to make sense of this, though, some clarifying scenes—a couple involving Nicola's relationship with the Male Chorus, and one involving Wren's relationship with the Female Chorus—are needed. This won't change the lack of personal depth in the archetypal characters; for that, the Greeks and commedia dell'arte used masks, which seem to be called for here as well.

Cinematic in its short scenes and episodic plot lines, How We Shall Know Him also needs to eliminate the excruciating blackouts between scenes to return some emotional continuity to the story. With these changes, perhaps the characters will matter to us.

Paragon Theatre Company's world premiere of Ellen K. Graham's How We May Know Him runs through May 19th. 303-300-2210.

Bob Bows

 

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