A philandering poet, a pair of clowns and a woman on the verge of burning her house down. These are several of the characters played by Jeff Andersen and Lila Martinez in Blackout Theatre Company’s latest original work, Stories of Us: A Guide to Home Improvement.
This trio of short, diverse plays digs into the dynamics of romantic relationships. The show evolved out of a company writing exercise, in which members of Blackout penned two-person plays that referenced a house. The end result is a production with strong voices, bound together by themes of love, loss and the difficulties of building a life with another person.
Stories of Us opens with “The Ups & The Downs,” vignettes by Barney Lopez that explore the peaks and valleys of the bond between lead characters Yolanda and Jesse. They meet, fall in love, fall out of love and part ways—but not necessarily in that order. Before the short begins, the audience is asked to rearrange a series of 17 photographs that represent scenes in the couple’s life, and that’s the order in which they’re performed.
To watch the moments out of order reveals a truth: Whether a relationship was happy or a hurtful one is often just a question of where the brain’s roulette ball lands on the spinning wheel of memory. “The Ups & The Downs” communicates that jumbled sense of retrospect. But the play loses power with its lack of specificity. Like every couple, Jesse and Yolanda have their issues. Unlike every couple, there’s a theatrical staging of them. So the question remains: Why? The characters need fleshing out and to be involved in a particular relationship for the story to be engaging on a visceral level.
The evening takes a sharp stylistic turn with the next piece, “Boxes Full of Posey” by Joshua Bien. Here we are introduced to Lux and Syd, who communicate entirely without understandable words. The two speak in mutual gibberish, and the tale unfolds as a sort of physical clown-comedy. The performance centers around Lux and Syd’s adventures with boxes—lots and lots of cardboard boxes. They transport them on and off stage, arrange them, count them, sometimes rip them open. They play, they fight, they kiss. At times, they inspire one another. Other times, they inadvertently tear down one another’s work.
“Boxes” is cute and lively, and like the short before it, venturesome in style. But the wordless physicality, though a bold choice, lacks narrative clarity. Are they moving somewhere? Are they building something? Through the confusion, though, Bien captures something genuine about the way people relate to one another, and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. Actor Andersen’s comedic talents are particularly strong—and not just in “Posey.” His performance lends a goofy, endearing humor to his characters that makes all of them charming even in their most unlikeable moments.
“The House that Kyle and Darlene Broke” by Shannon Flynn is a highly charged conclusion to the evening. Darlene, desperate to revive the passion in her marriage, has soaked her kitchen floor in gasoline and has a lighter at the ready. But, she quickly informs her husband, she is willing to forgo arson if he will punch through their kitchen wall instead.
Her need to see the house reflect the brokenness of their relationship is palpable. When she tells Kyle that if he just punches the wall everything will be OK, it's convincing, as illogical as it may seem. The stakes are high, and the question of how the scenario will play out is gripping.
Blackout is one of the most ambitious theater companies in Albuquerque. Its work—including a full-length original rock musical, and an adaptation of A Christmas Carol involving puppetry and live music—consistently takes big risks and pushes creative boundaries. Stories of Us, with its experimentation in structure and style, is no exception. Though flawed, the production is polished, professional and original.