An Absurdist Comedy in the Dark, ‘The Neverborn’ Feels Just Right for Our Times
The latest from prolific, sweetly-creepy playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard hits all the right notes, in a comically disturbing play set in an eerily familiar fantastical parallel.
That was the best play I’ve seen with you. I’ll probably have nightmares tonight.
But I’m looking forward to them.
Intentionally or not, it was my guest at The Neverborn — which opened this weekend at Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill — who gave perhaps the most accurate and succinct review (above) of a Kelleen Conway Blanchard play that anyone will muster.
And so, on a lazy weekend day, I could stop right there. But for posterity, and a little more context, feel free to read on if you wish.
Walking into a Kelleen Conway Blanchard play, I have to suspend my disbelief. I don’t do horror flicks or the ilk, and her plays have all the signs of the genre. Murderous twins. Haunted walls. A promo image of a decapitated baby doll with menacing eyes that looks like it will resurrect and lock onto my trachea.
And yet, against the odds, The Neverborn is an endearing (albeit weird) comedy.
A prolific playwright who premieres regularly at Annex, Blanchard uses horror-type premises as a hook to explore the human condition and its stickiest of facets — family, religion, greed, abandonment — through outlandish characters. They’re so outlandish, in fact, that they cease to be scary, as they might be if given a literal and sinister treatment. Both in masterful dialog and intentional delivery — sometimes deadpan, sometimes over-the-top — Blanchard’s plays and characters reveal a unique gift in her for cutting open and laying bare the ugliest of humanity. Somehow, always, with a laugh.
The Neverborn is about twins on the lam from a private orphanage, a laughing baby that haunts the walls, and a detective trying to get to the bottom of all the creepiness. They’re joined on their travels by a menagerie of townsfolk: a religious zealot father figure, a competitive duo of revival tambourine player and sequined tap dancer, a mad scientist, and a head.
In it, Blanchard creates a setting that’s otherworldly enough to seem quirky and sinister, but familiar enough to have an eerie resonance. It’s a style that’s distinctly Blanchard’s: set in a world like a modern-day take on The Twilight Zone (the original), comically populated with characters and situations like the best-landing of Saturday Night Live skits.
In The Neverborn, plot and narrative arc are light, in favor of those three elements: world, characters, and skits. The piece only works if those are done well enough to carry it. Happily, they are.
Blanchard’s creepy-but-familiar world is brought into physical being with a well-designed set by Adam Zopfi-Hulse. Cleverly, it’s constructed on one giant Lazy Susan, allowing efficient set changes while providing for great detail in each. And it’s the details that give the visual creep factor: the haunting (and haunted) portrait, the holes in the walls, the peeling wallpaper, the immoderate crosses.
A prolific playwright, who premieres regularly at Annex, Blanchard uses horror-type premises as a hook to explore the human condition and its stickiest of facets — family, religion, greed, abandonment — through outlandish characters. Somehow, always, with a laugh.
The quirky characters are given life in a star cast, many of them Annex veterans. Madison Jade Jones and Pilar O’Connell team up well as the disparate twins; Jones’s doe-eyed Lotte provides good balance for O’Connell’s hard-scrabble Bettina, who’s picking her teeth with a knife when we meet them both. Their surrounding characters are all capably over-the-top; among them: Sasha Bailey as a campy villain; Mike Gilson as a spirit-moved revivalist tambourine star; James Weidman as a more sinister zealot; and Chad Ro as a sequined competitive tap dancer willing to fight dirty. Zenaida Rose Smith’s meddling detective was the most understated character of the bunch, but even she got to ham it up later on, as a terrifyingly ecstatic head. And Val Brunetto’s characters were terrifyingly ecstatic pretty much the whole show.
Directing Blanchard is no slam-dunk. It requires a deft understanding of her off-beat humor to allow the unorthodox, non-punchline comedy to land — and restraint, to prevent over-the-top from becoming a train wreck. The characters — and their lines by extension — are funny because they’re unexpected. But they really take off because director Catherine Blake Smith (Artistic Director of Annex) clearly gets them.
Quite often, watching theatre in Seattle is like watching a live show in a private box, where only crinkling candy wrappers and coughing fits permeate its invisible walls. It’s a city of polite laughs and quiet onlooking, save for the ubiquitous standing ovation that no one’s enthusiastic about.
Blanchard’s plays will have none of that. The Neverborn’s opening-night audience, collectively, roared at the best deliveries, laughed through most of the rest, and groaned at the disgusting and disturbing. (I won’t give away anything, but one of the characters likely could benefit from seeing a medical doctor above a dogmatic one.) And while it’s unlikely most audiences will be as engaged and raucous as the sold-out, opening-night one — this show deserved all the laughs and groans it got.
For Smith, directing The Neverborn is a triumphant end to her seven years in various capacities at Annex; she’s announced she will step down as Artistic Director this fall. The theatre hasn’t announced its new artistic leadership plans yet, but one hopes they’ll be just as driven by bold new works as Annex has been over the years.
Being among artistic community feels right and necessary in our country’s current landscape — and Blanchard’s style of dark worlds mixed with absurdist humor is a unique escape. As Smith puts it in the program’s director’s note:
Creating art in the darkness brings us closer to the light. So I welcome you to fall into the darkness of The Neverborn and find the light with us. The absurdity of the current state of global affairs doesn’t have to always bring us down. Sometimes, we’re allowed to sit in community for a couple of hours, sip on a cheap drink, and just laugh.
Bring your humor. Bring your friends. Bring a couple of $2 PBRs from the bar.
Oh, and wear shorts — because while we’re all happy Annex has added A/C to its usual summer oven, you’re still going to want one of their fold-up fans from the lobby.
The Neverborn runs through 8/31 at Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill. Tickets $10-$40 (sliding scale available to all), available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and single-stall; theatre is located up significant stairs, and neither venue nor restrooms are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.