Directed by Zachary Baker-Salmon
Presented by Area IV Theatre
Playing at The Side Project Theatre
The program for Area IV Theater’s production of playwright Hayes Borkowski’s Bear Claw contains a distinct typographical detail not easily heard by the ear: following the title—lingering behind it—is a simple, silent ellipsis (…). I know, it’s a strange detail to get fixated on, but you always have to proceed on the notion that every detail is intentional, that every effect constitutes a deliberate choice.
And to be honest, in this instance, it’s appropriate. Because Bear Claw has neither the immensity of a ‘bear’ nor the force of its ‘claw.’ It won’t take a swing at you or knock you down. It doesn’t growl or roar. But Bear Claw does ‘ellipse.’ That is, it omits. It elides. It talks around and talks through, but it doesn’t talk at.
At the center of the play is a silent relationship between Gordon (Steven Delisi)—a former high school band teacher—and his two late-twenty-something daughters, April (Charlotte Mae Ellison) and Francesca (havalah grace). Gordon has recently been fired from his job after having allegedly harassed a female student sexually, and his daughters have returned home to support him.
That’s the ostensible premise, though it’s far from an effective summary of the play itself. Not until the play’s penultimate few seconds do we even see the family together, and even then their interactions are limited to the formal strictures of a game of Jenga. No dialogue. No direct address of the allegations launched against him. Just silence. An omission or elision. An ellipsis.
Sure, there’s plenty of talking in this play, though not where it perhaps most needs to occur. Recounting the events of a single evening, Bear Claw follows the divergent paths of both sisters as they hit the town for a couple of boozy nights out. April—brooding with the reflexive young angst borrowed second-hand from Kenny Lonergan’s This is Our Youth—hits a local dive where she opts to sleep with former high school ‘acquaintance’ George (Michael Knutson), who also happens to be replacing her dad as band teacher.
Francesca opts for a house party populated with old high school buddies (held, not without irony, in memory of a friend’s recent death after overdrinking at a house party). There, former high school assailant Morgan (Jason Clements) hits on her while waiting in the line for the bathroom. Morgan’s efforts are clumsy, Francesca’s been abandoned by her friends, and nobody seems much interested in doing the one thing she secretly went there to do—namely, to talk about her father.
Interspersed between these two scenes are (overly-) extended monologues featuring Gordon writing emails rehashing the events surrounding his dismissal. We’re never quite sure to what extent his scenes go beyond a defensive self-posturing, so it’s hard to form strong opinions about them one way or another. Suggestively enough, designer Joshua Ellison showers these scenes in backlight, doing little more than masking and distorting Gordon’s real intentions.
Reading latent daddy-issues into April’s and Francesca’s choice of hook-ups seems obvious enough, though what exactly Borkowski wants to evoke with the parallel feels less clear. April and Francesca are supposed to be a full ten years out of high school, though they read younger. Their frame of references are still almost exclusively personal, they have little concern for the immediate consequences of their actions, and they are almost intractably gravitated toward frustrated one-night stands doomed to inconsequence. Not a single scene within Bear Claw actually culminates in an absolute and irreversible change.
But because every scene is a deliberate effort to circumvent, repress and avoid having to talk about the play’s strained central relationship, there’s sadly little internal to Bear Claw’s scenes to draw us in. The relationships we are actually witness to are fleeting and of little consequence to anybody (including the characters involved in them). A futile and wry irony is the only emotion Bear Claw can sustain for any prolonged period of time.
That said, Charlotte Mae Ellison and havalah grace give worthwhile performances. Ellison’s feigned world-weariness more poignantly speaks to all the ways April refuses to acknowledge when she’s hurting, preferring to dress it up in some reactively knee-jerk heard-heartedness. Sure, she’s not what she pretends to be. Thankfully, George doesn’t much care either way. And havalah grace actually summons a moment or two of real concern as Francesca struggles to sift through the evening’s inane party talk to strike through to what she’s actually feeling.
Bear Claw might find an audience in that self-professedly apathetic slice of GenY, eager for stories featuring frustrated Millennials haplessly doomed to live out their parent issues vicariously through a string of empty emotional experiences. But beyond that narrow market niche, Bear Claw will stay a simple, silent ellipsis.
Reviewed by Anthony Mangini
Reviewed Thursday, August 8th.
Running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Bear Claw runs until August 18th. The Side Project Theatre is located at 1439 W. Jarvis.