Johnna Adams

Sans Merci: subtlety, then a gut-punch

Johnna Adams' 'Sans Merci' restrains its emotional mother-load until the very (bitter) end. Just wait.

The sound of the rain envelops the house. The weight of things hinted-at but unsaid hovers in the air between two women in a living room. One of them, the hostess, lumbers around slowly with the help of a cane. The other, the guest, basically just awkwardly perches on the couch. Everything about the start of Sans Merci is muted, muffled, encumbered—and for Badass Theatre Company director Antonion Sonera, that’s new.


Elizabeth (Luisa Sermol) and Kelly (Jessica Tidd) fight through their grief over the loss of a daughter and friend in ‘Sans Merci.’

“Wait. From the same director who closed Milagro’s last season with Learn To Be Latina?” you rightly ask, “Chock full of profane racial slurs and rollicking with sexy ‘fly girls?’ And who then revived Badass’s truly badass Invasion in the same space?” Yup, the very same. But don’t worry; they’ll get to the gut-punch.

Originally, Badass artistic director Antonio Sonera admitted at the talkback, they were going for another Johnna Adams script, Gideon’s Knot. Her agent sold them on Merci when Sonera realized the bereaved mother role, Elizabeth, would be a perfect vehicle for company co-founder and Portland theater vet Luisa Sermol. Sermol—last seen in Corrib’s Hen Night Epiphany, another prolonged, fraught all-woman conversation—is a vessel capable of holding oceans of dramatic tension before spilling over…which is exactly what Sans Merci demands. Wait for the flood. Wait for it.

Elizabeth’s hobbled hostess, Kelly, is played by Jessica Tidd—last seen as Ophelia in Post5’s Hamlet. In that role, she made puzzling choices that seemed to echo the kooky, “adorkable” Zooey Deschanel. She’s much more compelling in this lesbian activist role. She radiates humility and empathy, and moves fluently in the “aw-shucks” nonthreatening body language that tall women, and women with strong convictions, sadly find they have to affect to get along. She’s trying to be nice. But she believes. So. Strongly…!

The absent party that dominates these two women’s thoughts is Elizabeth’s daughter and Kelly’s former more-than-roommate, Tracy, who has died tragically in a voluntourist trip to Columbia gone horribly wrong (and, incidentally, ripped from real headlines). Jahnavi Caldwell-Green gets comparatively few lines in this role, and for a long time, we don’t see her at all. Eventually, she’s revealed in the flesh (both figuratively and literally) in a series of flashbacks. Caldwell-Green embodies the apple-cheeked little sweetheart both her mother and friend want to remember, but when the scenes call for more, man does she deliver. This won’t surprise those who caught her at Action/Adventure during the Fertile Ground Festival, but let it caution everyone else: don’t be lulled by her cuteness. The torrent is coming.

Strong players in rightful roles fortify a show that could otherwise too easily be broken. Very little action happens on that rainy afternoon; they’re mostly reminiscing and arguing while frankly over-quoting Keats as they gradually circle closer and closer to the visceral center of their heartbreak. What we’re watching is the way Elizabeth and Kelly process their mutual loss, not just of their daughter and friend, but of their respective worldviews, each shattered by the circumstances of her death. Turns out, in her final moments Tracy faced her own crisis of faith. Wait for it.

Sans Merci runs through October 11, Thurs-Sat 7:30, Sun 2pm.


A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

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Fight night: Unraveling ‘Gidion’s Knot’

Boom! Third Rail's new two-hander is like a boxing match in a fifth-grade classroom.

Whatever else a two-hander play happens to be about, it’s almost always about a fight. It could, of course, be about two people united in blissful harmony, but then it wouldn’t be a play, because plays imply action, and action implies conflict.

So let’s place Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ intermissionless hour-and-a-half drama pitting a fifth-grade teacher against an upset mother, inside a metaphorical boxing ring. The fighters land lots of blows, parry quite a few, and show off some fancy footwork. Something primal’s going on, an intellectual bloodlust that gets in your nostrils and stimulates your lower brain. Sock it to her!

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Green (top) and Newman. Photo: Owen Carey

Amy Newman as Heather, the teacher, and Dana Green as Corryn, the mom, are good fighters in Third Rail Rep’s new production of Adams’ play, which debuted in 2012 and is a hot property right now on the resident-theater circuit. It’s a pleasure to watch them move around the boxing ring, which at the intimate CoHo Theatre, where Third Rail’s production is being mounted, consists of a brightly decorated schoolroom complete with desks, board displays (the class has been studying ancient mythologies), inspirational statements and pinned-up papers: scenic designer Kristeen Crosser makes you feel as if you’ve walked straight into an after-school parent/teacher conference. Green and Newman are good tacticians, sweet scientists of the acting ring. I admire the skills they and director Michael O’Connell reveal as the fight goes on, especially the way they use long beats, Pinter-like pauses, to ratchet the suspense and play up the emotional undercurrents of what swiftly becomes a horrendously uncomfortable encounter. The writer and performers are adept at turning up the heat and delivering a chill.


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