A Map of Virtue
by Erin Courtney
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Set and costume design by Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau
Sound design by Daniel Kluger
Songs by Jesse Lenat
Nate – Alex Draper
Bird Statue – Birgit Huppuch
Ray – Jesse Lenat
June – Annie McNamara
Victor – Hubert Point-Du Jour
Mark – Jon Norman Schneider
Sarah – Maria Striar
For some of us, life is riddled with inexplicable coincidence and an uncanny way of repeating itself. These startling moments of synchronicity are often baffling, sometimes enlightening, always astonishing. They create curious patterns throughout our lives, connecting us to people and places we never would have otherwise noted. These reoccurring symbols often become, for those of us who experience this mysterious serendipity, the subject of obsession, of art, of deep psychological investigation. Are they signs from God? Are they manifestations of our subconscious—childhood traumas, perhaps, coming to light? Are they the universe’s whimsical reminders that we are all one, that all of space and time is eternally connected and inextricably linked?
It is just such a string of synchronistic occurrences that Erin Courtney’s newest play investigates. 13P’s A Map of Virtue, which closed last week after a very successful run at the 4th Street Theater, concerns itself with a cluster of characters and events surrounding a bizarre sequence of uncanny encounters involving a multitude of birds and two complete strangers. Sarah (Maria Striar), who has two birds tattooed on her chest, and Mark (Jon Norman Schneider), who has carried a small bird statue around in his pocket since he was a child and stole the figurine from the office of his sexually abusive headmaster, first see each other in a diner one afternoon, just at the very moment when, like a scene out of The Birds, a frightening swarm of birds descends on the building. The destinies of Sarah, Mark, and the Bird Statue (Birgit Huppuch) are from this moment forever connected, and they continue to encounter each other completely coincidentally in all corners of the world—never actually speaking, but always acknowledging each other—until one fateful, horrifying night.
And what does Courtney’s play make of synchronicity such as this? What light does it shed on the mystery of meaningful coincidence? Perhaps we find our answer in the most brilliant aspect of the piece—the play’s many forms, thoughtfully and cleverly written in by Courtney, and successfully executed by director Ken Rus Schmoll. The overarching form of the piece is symmetrical: seven parts, each named for a virtue (Curiosity, Loyalty, Empathy, Honesty, Integrity, Love and Intuition), lead to the middle part of the play, its high and utterly surprising climax, titled simply, In The Middle of The Night. We then descend back through the virtues, from Intuition to Curiosity, with each part in some way reflecting the form and content of its corresponding part in the first half. Within this symmetrical structure, we are treated to a variety of forms—some scenes, such as the first (and last), consist entirely of the characters speaking directly to us, the audience, telling us their stories. Other scenes are narrated by the Bird Statue, while the characters act out their motions in dumb show. Other parts are performed traditionally, as real-time scenes unfolding before us.
This playing with the elements of form draws attention to the form, to the artistry of the play itself. It forces us as audience members to be engaged more actively than the absent passive voyeur of traditional theater. We are required to listen attentively—to carefully follow the twisting, detailed, overlapping tales we are being told. We are held outside of the story, heightening our awareness of the storytelling itself. The significance of this heightened sense of storytelling and form is that it helps us to see the connections between the stories we tell and the stories we live—how our dreams, our memories, our art, and the often-bizarre moments we experience are all part of the same grand piece of theater—life. These strands that pull and follow us are woven between and through the stories we read and hear and the art we take in. Stories and art are our map of virtue, passed through the generations, to help guide us through life’s mysteries.
A Map of Virtue, however, is not solely an experiment in form, and it does not hold us at arms length entirely throughout. Although it denies us the experience of being lost in a moment for most of the play, when it comes time to draw us in, it does so terrifyingly well. At the center of the play, In The Middle of the Night, we find ourselves very much in the moment when Mark, Sarah, and Sarah’s husband Nate (Alex Draper) find themselves completely trapped in a nightmarish ordeal in the middle of the woods by antagonists June (Annie McNamara) and Ray (Jesse Lenat). At this point, for the first time, we suddenly have a very clear sense of space and time, and of being trapped together along with our heroes. Jesse Lenat’s haunting voice and eerily beautiful banjo playing, as well as his particularly striking stage presence and absolutely convincing portrayal of an extremely bizarre character, are particularly successful in creating these moments so palpable. The sense of moment is, indeed, taken to a remarkable extreme smack dab in the center of the play, when an oven timer is set for one minute and we all—audience, actors, characters alike—must wait in awkward silence and extreme tension for the bell to ding.
After Mark, Sarah and Nate find their way out of this ordeal, thanks to Mark’s aptly named boyfriend Victor (Hubert Point-Du Jour), the play descends back through its multiple forms and back through its seven virtues. We end up back where we began—sort of. We began with child abuse and mystery, and we end with more trauma, the suspicion of more child abuse, and no real explanation to the mystery. But if Courtney, who is certainly a playwright tapped into the intriguing mysteries of the universe and a writer to follow, leaves us with few answers, she at least leaves us with this: we are going back to where we came from, and art, like a map, will help us navigate our way home.