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Red Herring Looks at the Evolution of Love and Pain in Chapatti

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Red Herring Looks at the Evolution of Love and Pain in ChapattiDavid Vargo as Dan and Josie Merkle as Betty in Chapatti. Photo by Dale Bush.
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Red Herring opened the regional premiere of Christian O’Reilly’s Chapatti, directed by Michael Garrett Herring, this weekend. It’s a lovely, warm look at how narratives shape our self-image and image in the world. It’s a stirring reminder of the reasons we all find inside ourselves to live.

Chapatti focuses on two scratched-and-dented souls in Dublin, Ireland. Dan (David Allen Vargo) shuffles through an apartment and a life, radiating grief following the death of the woman he loved for 30 years. We meet Dan writing an ad for a new home for his dog  – the title of the play – and packing. There isn’t much hiding what that means. Betty (Josie Merkel) lives in her own cocoon of the past. She’s found herself – after a long, loveless marriage – as the caretaker to a cantankerous, ungrateful widow closer to giving up and a plethora of well-loved cats. Dan wears that loneliness on every line of his face; Betty has the saving grace of retaining her capacity for beautiful, mad, laughter.

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Josie Merkle as Betty, David Vargo as Dan in Chapatti. Photo by Dale Bush.

Part of the magic in this production is its simplicity. It connects the memory play and the late-life romance genre to the tradition of Irish storytelling in a natural, organic way. The characters have to recount every other person who appears in the play. Less the characters are breaking the fourth wall; more they’re talking to themselves because no one else (listening) is in their respective bubbles. When you have actors as mesmerizing and as dedicated to the truth as Merkle and Vargo, this story-telling device crackles with an intimacy and a disarming, sometimes disorienting, directness.

Herring uses his well-observed set to the hilt: two rooms at opposite sides of the Playhouse like their own stages, audience arrayed on two sides like we’re watching a tennis match. It’s almost shocking when the two characters meet and have another human being to interact with and the way the two actors’ shift their body language and voices, mirroring and nudging the other, is marvelous.

There are weak moments in the writing, but the performances are intoxicating: vibrant, full of life, and unafraid of sharp edges or surprise. At its best, Chapatti is two sonatas layered over each other, telling the story of human beings learning to live with shame and lives that didn’t turn out how we expected. It’s hard to imagine a better performance of this play.

Josie Merkle as Betty, David Vargo as Dan in Chapatti. Photo by Dale Bush.

Josie Merkle as Betty, David Vargo as Dan in Chapatti. Photo by Dale Bush.

Chapatti runs through April 29 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit redherring.secure.force.com.

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