Pascale Armand Braces for Life's Natural Shocks at WP Theater
A mysterious storm approaches in Lauren Gunderson's new solo play.
Angela (Pascale Armand) feels a kinship with Hamlet, Shakespeare's brooding young prince who ruminates on the logical consequences of his options to be or not to be. It's not his contemplation of suicide that moves her, but rather Hamlet's detailed risk-reward analysis, an exhilarating undertaking for a passionate insurance agent like herself — and what better time to mull over this existential calculus than when the only thing standing between you and an approaching tornado is a shabby basement (a neglected space designed by Lee Savage with storage boxes, miscellaneous furniture, and 1980s floor tile that's absolutely covering a layer of asbestos).
Hamlet boils down his calculation to a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don't: To stick with life and its "thousand natural shocks", or to take the risk on death and its "undiscover'd country" — thus the inspiration for the title of Lauren Gunderson's new one-woman play, which is now making its world premiere at WP Theater. It takes nearly the entirety of Natural Shocks to comprehend exactly what kind of devils Angela herself is dealing with. But after the first resentful mention of a "him," it's clear that danger is closing in and she's craving the courage to gamble on the unknown.
Considering how public Gunderson has been about the play's association with causes like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, and domestic violence nonprofits throughout its recent cross-country tour of readings, it's fair to disclose that the story circles these issues. But for those weary of theatricalized politics, rest assured that Natural Shocks is not an issue play, it's a character play — led by a grade-A character actor who displayed the depth of her talent in 2016 with her Tony-nominated performance in Danai Gurira's ensemble drama Eclipsed.
Now manning the stage alone, Armand wavers in and out of a fully inhabited performance, a fluctuation that seems to depend primarily on word retrieval. But when she hits passages she seems at ease in — Angela's memories of trips to Disney with her mother, the story of how she met her husband, and the game-changing concept of "reinsurance" — Armand is warm and charming and the person with whom you'd gladly wait out a storm with a bottle of wine and a game of Monopoly.
For a while in fact it feels like we're doing just that: killing time — though director May Adrales buoys the energy of Pascale's extended monologue with plenty of stage business. The winds gradually intensify (menacing sound design by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes), but the story doesn't for a long while, leaving us to wonder what (if anything) is shaping Angela's stream of conscious, and who (if anyone) is the "us" that she thinks she's talking to? It's best to give Gunderson the benefit of the doubt on both counts because she has specific answers to all of your questions. They may come later than some attention spans can accommodate, but they pay off in haunting ways.