(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
In a post-apocalyptic Texas where all the men are the victims of the violent history of war, the age-old issues of love, sex, gender, jealousy, and betrayal are as pertinent as ever. This is the situation posited by Eva Suter (who received her MFA as a Michener Fellow at UT Austin last year) in the world premier of “Hold Me Well” playing through Aug 7 at the Off Shoot.
“Hold Me Well” is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” set in a wasteland that used to be Texas, in an America where all the men have been dead for years. The action takes place in a small settlement of a few women who are simply trying to live their lives in safety amidst the violence of multiple opposing forces.
In Sutler’s play, Othello is replaced by Odele (Elizabeth Mason), a tough-as-nails soldier who falls in love with the mercurial Des (Hayley Armstrong). Race-bending as well as gender-bending “Othello“ in this case it is Des who is black, while all the other women are white. Life is complicated for the couple by the schemes of Amelia (Ellie McBride), who bears a long-term grudge against Odele; the hidden desires of Des’ childhood friend Casey (Emily Rankin); and the secret manipulations of the seemingly innocent Raquel (Taylor Flanagan).
The strongest asset of the play’s premiere is its powerful cast. In particular, McBride creates a sympathetic villain who we find ourselves rooting for, despite ourselves, while Rankin embodies a kind of quiet, haunted, desirous heroicism. The chemistry between all of the players and their various relationships is what gives the show its forward momentum.
Suter’s text, though strong in ideas and rich in meta-textual playfulness that intertwines Shakespeare’s plot with unexpected twists and a science fiction backdrop, is somewhat unevenly paced, with an opening that tends to drag and then a rather abrupt ending. Much of the world-building is also unclear, and the particulars of this dystopian world get lost in the language that vacillates between heightened poetics, colloquial dialogue, and futuristic patois.
On the production side, EL Hohn’s evocative costuming and Patrick Anthony’s multi-tiered set (highlighted by minimalist lighting) create an atmosphere reminiscent of science fiction films like “Waterworld” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” with a dusty, worn feel to everything from the walls to the industrial tin cups used by the women. Due to the tight space of the Off Shoot (the Off Center’s much smaller sister stage) and its one-level audience seating, director Rudy Ramirez’ staging works best when scenes are played on the second floor of the set, imbuing them with an epic, wide-scale scope.
“Hold Me Well” is an intriguing new play that delightfully distorts its Shakespearean and dystopian inspirations, even if it is often uneven and confusing, and ultimately its potent cast is what carries the day.