Loss shatters you. Unlike any other experience in your life, the loss of a loved one breaks the human spirit in such intense ways that your mind and body seem separated. You think, perhaps, that by sharing this loss with friends or family or even strangers, you will somehow diminish the effects of loss, but in actuality, they intensify. Black River Falling explores this kind of collective experience, the sharing of loss. Conceived by ABQ native Kevin R. Elder, but created and written through ensemble work by UNM’s theater company in residence, the Tricklock Company, Black River Falling is set in the home of four sisters during one of the worst snowstorms in 1890s Wisconsin.
The four sisters—Tillie, Avery, Geraldine Josephine and Adella—are the sole survivors of a destructive winter. Their mother, father, husbands, and most of the town have either frozen to death or otherwise perished. This mixture of music and prose conveys a story of loss and isolation within the sisters’ snowbound home. “They’re mid-snowstorm,” says Hannah Kauffmann-Banks, who plays Avery. “These women have been snowed in their house for months, and what started as a large family is just them, just those four. The play is an interesting and focused slice of their life and the intimacy of being trapped, how they function, how they continue to live and how they eat.”
Based on the documentary Wisconsin Death Trip, the show originally opened in the spring of 2007 in Albuquerque and then toured to Poland and Germany. As part of their 20th season celebrations, Tricklock is bringing back audience favorites, so they’ve reworked the script, redesigned the concept and added new songs for this reimagining. Each Tricklock show is original and crafted in ensemble. They are dedicated to inventing all shows afresh, even ones they previously produced. With only one previous cast member returning, Katy Houska as Geraldine Josephine, this reworked version of Black River Falling differs from the original show.
“The play is an interesting and focused slice of their life and the intimacy of being trapped, how they function, how they continue to live and how they eat.”
“We came at it with the same source material, the documentary,” director Juli Hendren explains, “but there is one original cast member, and the other three are new, so they are really bringing their own ideas and dynamics to those characters.”
“It’s still the same words and same songs, for the most part,” according to Dodie Montgomery. “Same relationships, same stories, same events, but restructured.” Tricklock’s new version of Black River Falling, she says, has shifted from the original—“We’ve taken it out of the ethereal.” Where the 2007 show was ghostlike, this version is “concrete and based in reality.” Kauffmann-Banks adds, “It’s very intimate. Everything is in your face, tangible and striking.”
This aesthetic shift from the ethereal to the concrete was a gradual one, a confluence of several factors. “As time goes on … you become better artists. You see things differently, and so we were able to look back at the script and, although it was a show we loved very dearly, look at it with new eyes and tinker with it,” Hendren says.
In the original play, the set was minimal, the props were pantomimed, and the transitions to moments of dream sequence fantasy, where the sisters lose touch with reality, were less apparent. However, in this version they have props and a realistic set, clarifying why and how the sisters are losing their minds from isolation and despair. “The character of Geraldine Josephine was very close to her father,” says Hendren. “She has struggled with his death. She has his pocket watch and is very attached to it. She has a moment towards the end of the play where in her hunger and struggle, she breaks into a delightful song about her daddy with her sisters dancing backup. It is her way of coping with the loss and situation.” Watching the sisters drift into a fantasy world is distinctly unsettling in this sober rendition.
Black River Falling takes loss, loneliness and desperation out of the abstract and places it in a stark reality. Although it may seem counterintuitive, grieving isn’t abstract—it’s very real and felt in ways that are completely unexpected. Black River Falling, which opens Nov. 14 and runs through Dec. 1 at Tricklock Performance Laboratory (110 Gold SE), deals with that reality as it presents feelings of loss in shattering and striking ways.