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Every once in a while, a theatrical experience comes along that is both singular and bracing, that provokes your intellect and also stirs the hairs on the back of your neck. David Greig’s The Events, running through March 22 at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, is just such a production. It grapples with the aftermath of a tragedy so unspeakable — the mass-shooting of a multicultural choir in a remote seaside town — that words seem inadequate. The perpetrator is a local boy, a youth who spouts half-baked nonsense about the invasion of “foreigners” that can at times eerily border on the reasonable. (If only the aborignals had been able to eliminate the English before their ships washed up on Australia’s shores and decimated their society, he argues in one historical aside, they might have been much better off.)
At the center of the story is Claire, a liberal minister who had led the choir, survived the attack, and now struggles to make sense of it all. Neve McIntosh (Doctor Who‘s Madame Vastra) captures both Claire’s haunted sense of loss and her stubborn tenacity in seeking a rational accounting for the inexplicable. The shooting is fictional, but Greig was inspired by the 2011 slaughter of 77 people in Norway by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik — who, like the Boy in The Events, later stood trial for his actions.
In a provocative move, Clifford Samuel plays not only the Boy but also a psychiatrist, a journalist, an anti-immigrant politician, fellow survivors — all the people to whom Claire turns in search of answers that remain maddeningly elusive. Samuel brings a dispassionate intensity to his multiple roles, which heightens the sense of Claire’s confusion as she cycles through the various stages of grief without ever quite embracing acceptance.
McIntosh and Samuel are joined on stage by a local choir, who serve as a Greek chorus as well as a literal representation of Claire’s life’s work before and after the tragedy. (There are four ensembles rotating through the NYTW production; Village Light Opera Group performed when I attended.) And it is through their voices, both in unison and in harmony, that we come to see both what Claire has lost and what she is striving to regain. Where words fail, Greig’s remarkable new play seems to suggest, perhaps music can fill the void. Even if it’s only humming. Grade: A