How can you bring yourself to forgive someone for actions that were completely unforgivable? That's the question at hand in David Greig's The Events, a production of the British-based Actors Touring Company now running at New York Theatre Workshop. Aiming to investigate the spirit of a community as it bounces back from unspeakable horror, this pas de deux for actors and choir is all too relevant in its immediacy, but also a bit too discombobulating in practice for its own good.
At the center is Claire (Neve McIntosh), a lady vicar in a small seaside town whose community choir was the unknowing target of a local young man's lethal rage. One of the few survivors of "the events" as they're called, Claire has spent the subsequent months dealing with post-traumatic stress in the form of great anger, a need to find answers, and a hunger for retribution. Of course, understanding doesn't come easy. "What if bad things just happen?" Claire's partner, Catriona, asks at one point. Claire refuses to accept that, setting off on her own quest to find an inner bravery that will allow her to accept the inexplicable carnage.
Without revealing information that's too crucial, the play was inspired by Anders Breivik's 2011 attack on several government buildings and a youth camp in Norway. However, as Americans, it's impossible not to view The Events through the lens of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Greig's play is an uncompromising look at what humans go through in order to carry on in the face of hardship, exploring the subject matter in a way that is touching without being overly sentimental. What the play and Ramin Gray's staging lack, however, is clarity.
There are only two actors in the production, McIntosh and Clifford Samuel, who plays every role besides Claire. Samuel is simultaneously Catriona, a series of local journalists, the perpetrator's father, and the incarcerated perpetrator himself. In many cases, doubling, tripling, quadrupling in roles is fine, though here it's extremely confusing, as Gray has directed Samuel into a strangely unspecific performance, one that never differentiates between characters in either voice nor body language. You never know whom the sympathetic McIntosh is talking to, and in effect, the chameleonic timeline of the play becomes extremely hard to follow.
Because the show is set up to be a touring production, the design elements are minor. Chloe Lamford's set is a bare stage filled with risers and an overlaid Masonite floor, while her costumes are so current they could be the actors' street clothes. Charles Balfour's lighting makes a major impression, adding emphasis to the more intense scenes, while Alex Caplen's sound design is seamless.
One of the more noteworthy elements of The Events is its use of an actual choir, one that changes for every performance. On the night of the reviewed performance, the New York City-based Chameleonic took the stage, beautifully singing the music of composer John Browne, as well as "On Top of the World" by The Carpenters, accompanied on piano by Magnus Gilljam. Their mere presence adds a dimension to a production that would otherwise be emotionally empty.