Human suffering is alluring. Struggle. Loss. Torment. Misfortune. Misery. It thrills us to a point of disgust and retreat, then enthralls us again. There's a subtle beauty in anguish—a beauty Kevin R. Elder attempts to capture in Black River Falling.
Black River Falling is an original piece created by Elder and the Tricklock Company, now in residency at UNM. Elder first began working on this piece in 2005 and worked and reworked it into its current state. After the show’s run in Albuquerque, Tricklock will take it on tour around parts of Europe.
Black River Falling sets a dreary tone immediately, opening with the twang of the banjo atop the fierce sounds of a howling storm. Slowly, two women struggle to drag a heavy bundle in a white sheet across the floor—groping the air as they force through its thickness. Their burden dropped, the women dance lavishly in their anguish to a bluegrass band as the lights dim.
The scene reopens with a young girl in a white gown sitting beside another girl dressed in proper men's attire. They chat for a moment about the frost, and the young girl, Adella (former Alibi intern Abigail Blueher), asks her sister Geraldine (Katy Houska) when she'll check on mother. "After the thaw," Geraldine tells her. The lights suddenly drop and a yellow glow envelops the pair as they sing and a spider puppet dances on Adella's head.
Adella and Geraldine leave the bench and join their sisters, Matilda (Elsa Menendez) and Avery (Summer Olsson), in their home. The house is cold and white, but alive with the glow of the women. The four sit around the table after a meal—a very paltry meal—and it becomes apparent these four women have experienced great loss due to the raging winter outside the walls. They must band together to survive.
The audience gets insight into the lives and thoughts of these women through a series of dreamlike memories, which could just as easily be hallucinations stemmed from their miserable situation. The sequences are triggered by simple items—a pocket-watch, a potato, the clicking of a fork upon a plate, the feel of a jacket once worn by a loving father. Each memory is tragically gorgeous, soaked in the anguish of its owner but softened by the dulling gift of time.
In the play bill, Elder says Black River Falling is about the beauty and elegance found in desperation and haunting memories—it embodies just that. Black River Falling is haunting, captivating, heart-breaking and uplifting all in one unsettling package. The amount of passion and energy the cast put into the production was apparent in every word and every step. Their depiction of the fictional memories from the fictional characters they portrayed holds so much weight, it's conceivable an audience member could awake in cold sweat years later and wonder if the image in her dream was pulled from her own mind or from a lingering impression left by Black River Falling. The amazing set design was key in creating this impression—offering the audience a view into the women's home filtered through a white cloth. It left the audience feeling like an omnipresent peeping Tom, seeing not only into the intimate space of their home but also their minds.
But Black River Falling has evolving to do. Being a concept piece, it's essential to introduce the concept to the audience early and ask them to join in the ride. Black River Falling is an intricate and difficult journey without an easy access point. A few beautiful moments are lost in the first scenes, because the audience is running behind the bus trying to catch up—but once it does, it's a sublime ride.