Theatre Review: The Wexner Center brings 600 Highwaymen’s Near Perfect Employee of the Year to Columbus
Columbus is lucky enough to have a piece on our stage for this weekend that uses the unique qualities and power of theatre in a way I’ve never quite seen before with the Wexner Center’s newest import: Employee of the Year, expertly written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone and produced by their company 600 Highwaymen.
Employee of the Year tells the story of a woman, referred to only as “J,” through 80 years of her life starting before she’s in school, through the voices and movement of five girls between 9 and 11 years old (Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Chastain Levy, Violet Newman, Candela Cubria) moving around a white, carpeted square in the middle of a bare wood floor, sometimes thrillingly breaking that plane to step outside. The narration is clear and bright, deadpan with a charming wink, carried through the girls. The narrators trade off at times that seem arbitrary, someone might follow the story for 20 years and the next might only cover three, but it has an accumulative power that feels organic, it feels like the shifting sands of memory.
The two pronged inciting incident that haunts everything else is J, barely old enough to drive, returning home to find her house burned to the ground and her parents dead only to find they were her adoptive parents and they never told her. She goes off on a quest to find her birth mother and a peace, glimpsed in fragments – “Now, I’m 25.” “Now, I’m 42.” “61.” The play introduces other characters and fills them out in real voices with a remarkable subtlety in both writing and acting that never wants us to forget the deepening disconnect of the children presenting these facts and opinions and the more adult (but never inappropriate) subject matter. How much of what we experience – and how we we process these experience – is already fixed as a child? How much of adult life is just stripping away, building defenses, or trying to get back to that openness?
There’s a strong sense of movement, a physicality to the piece. It’s full of moments when the other narrators, follow the leader in choreography like leaning in with the baton in a relay race as time vanishes and the next voice rises up. Particularly dazzling, near the end, is a wordless explosion of pure joy, all five girls running and moving in formation together through the simple set. Also key are David Cale’s terrific songs, funny (as near the finale, looking back, when J decides, “I guess Madonna was right,”) and wrenching (as in an early, end-of-the-beginning realization of her dissatisfaction, “I wish I loved you more). They bore into the audience’s head while keeping the same tone and tempo of the rest of the piece, human-sized, the clear, deceptively simple melodies are a shock but they’re not out of place, it’s all cut from the same fabric.
Employee of the Year left me wiping tears from my eyes, jaw gone slack, and it left me giddy walking home, turning it over in my head. If you love art, theatre, or stories, miss this at your peril.
Employee of the Year runs for two more shows today (February 20th) at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and one Sunday at 2:00pm. For tickets and more info, visit http://www.wexarts.org/performing-arts/600-highwaymen-employee-year