“Afterlife” takes a poetic look at death and loss

In Afterlife, playwright Steve Yockey offers not so much a “ghost story” (despite the subtitle) as a poetic meditation on death and loss. In a black box in NoHo, the Collaborative Artists Ensemble is giving Yockey’s tale an inventive, often intriguing production.

The play’s most distinctive feature is that it shifts worlds between Acts 1 and 2 — from the familiar reality of a beach house to an eerie, unnamed place that its inhabitants cannot identify. The company takes full advantage of this, turning a gigantic scene change into an opportunity for magic. The house manager and an aide swiftly strip every bit of scenery (even what I thought was paint on the walls), then create the second world from scratch. The transformation kept most of us in our seats through the break.

Joshua James Nightley, Meg Wallace

As the worlds shift, so do the characters. In Act 1, we meet a young couple who’ve lost their son. They appear in Act 2, but always separately; so does their boy (now years older), a wry but unsettling postman, a giant talking raven, and two Norn-like women in outdated clothes.

The staging of this strange new world is consistently fascinating, and elegantly supports the writer’s poetic language and complex ideas (salted with humor). You really need to experience it for yourself. I’ll just say kudos to director Steve Jarrard’s production design, Jason Ryan Lovett’s lighting, stage manager Zahra Husein’s sound, Meg Wallace’s puppet-making, and some fine costume work.

Act 1’s reality is painfully familiar -– a couple struggling, with little success, to salvage their intimacy. Both are numbed by loss, but each copes with it  differently, making them feel isolated and betrayed. The storytelling here is at least as daring as in Act 2, but less visibly so. Yockey gives us the crisis, in full agony; but he doesn’t resolve it, or even “tilt” toward either parent’s way of responding.

Unfortunately, the performance of Act 1 isn’t equal to its writing. We should be grabbed emotionally and pulled into the crisis — even while, at first, we don’t quite know what it is. That takes characters we instantly bond with.

Joshua James Knightley, a newcomer, almost gives us this. His Connor vacillates between being decisive, placating, detached, unsure, and angry, as he struggles to hang onto the shattered role of family hero. At times we feel empathy with him, and at others we feel his wife’s irritation. Wallace, as Danielle, gives us less — a seldom-varying note of complaint (in a high, nasal voice and slumped posture). This rubs out the subtle colors written for her character, and blurs them into a person we have trouble caring for, though  we pity her situation.

Steve Jarrard’s direction, so strong in Act 2, is unaccountably weak here. The two actors are left facing one another far too often, blocking us out. And it seems they haven’t had enough scene work to find the range of confused feelings the words offer, or to orchestrate them into a sequence of connected moments.

In the smaller roles, the performers shine. Edgar Allan Poe IV’s Postman slides subtly between gentle mentor and heartless tour guide (rather like Robert Frost), while his Raven is by turns humorous, frightening, and deeply chilling (suggesting a famous ancestor and his dark bird). Mary Burkin’s wonderfully mad Proprietress can  sedately pour tea one moment and flash fire like an angry goddess the next (bringing to mind Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts); and Georgan George creates a Seamstress who veers wildly between gentle, tearful crooning and manic, red-faced shouting (rather like Alice’s Duchess). In his first stage role, Buddy Handleson nicely delivers a lost, loving boy who very slowly learns his fate.

Afterlife is a gentle, complex, and unusual play. It is often ironic, even playful; it is also often emotionally harrowing, even existentially terrifying. This is much more than a ghost story, and deserves time on a lot of stages.

True to their mission – which they’ve pursued now for 10 years — Collaborative Artists brings Afterlife from the silence of print into full life before an audience. They are to be thanked for giving us a challenging, poetic look at the shifting tide line where death and life meet.
Afterlife: A Ghost Story, by Steve Yockey, directed by Steve Jarrard.
Presented by Collaborative Artists Ensemble at the Avery Schreiber Playhouse, 4934 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 7:00,
through Nov. 12.

Tickets: (323) 860-6569, or <www.collaborativeartistsensemble.com>