Where: The Owl and Cat
When: June 21 - July 1
Written by: Ali Viterbi
Directed by: Scotty Wings
Performed by: Rian Howlett and Sophia Simmons
Lighting by: Arielle Cottingham
Sound by: Jacky T
Photo courtesy of The Owl and Cat
Deadheads is an American play written by emerging playwright Ali Viterbi, a Yale graduate. Working within the frame of the the life cycle of rockband The Grateful Dead and their famous legion of loyal followers, the Deadheads, Viterbi explores the life cycle of a romantic relationship and what it would look as it travelled the thirty years alongside. Presenting this incredibly intimate story within the intimacy of The Owl and Cat Theatre is a perfect match and enhances both the play and the theatre.
Viterbi follows the relationship between Sadie and Ethan, dedicated Deadheads, as they tour with the band over thirty years. It is written in a picaresque fashion with time jumps beginning in 1965 through to 1995 when band icon Jerry Garcia died unexpectedly. The Grateful Dead stuff is interesting, and Viterbi picks up on a lot of fun slang and interesting cultural connections, including the predominance of an American Jewish following, but the real heart of the play is the relationship and dynamics between Ethan and Sadie.
This is not a play about The Grateful Dead or even the Deadheads. This is a play about growing up, the evolution of relationships, and control. The parallel with the band is a good one though, because The Grateful Dead were famous for evolving their style over time and performing every concert differently. This is how they kept their following. Beginning as a psychedelic jug band, they moved into rock'n'roll in the 70s and embraced electronic music in the 80s.
Counterpointing the band's evolution, the relationship between Sadie and Ethan never moves on, never evolves. Apart from beginning by smoking weed, then moving into acid and harder drugs, the actual dynamic never changes and this is the core of the writing.
Simmons (Sadie) and Howlett (Ethan) work well together and have pitched their performances at a perfect level for a space so intimate. Simmons in particular is mesmerising, showing Sadie becoming muted and changed as the relationship continues on. Some of the change is good, and some is bad.
The show loses punch, however, because Wings (director) has failed to fully explore Ethan's role in the dynamic of the relationship and the play. Wings has fully embraced the hippy, free love, happy-go-lucky 60's vibe, but he hasn't paid attention to the detail of the developments of either the band or the couple. This is a bit surprising because in his performance poetry, Wings shows a delightful cynicism about the hippy lifestyle. If only he had brought some of that attitude to this production it would have had more bite and impact.
In each time shift Ethan (in the script) becomes more controlling. At a very early point he even talks about the difference between the 60s and the 70s being a disillusionment in the future. Ethan refuses to grow up and in doing so a divide is being created between him and Sadie. None of this is reflected in the direction. The dynamics - both physical and verbal - tend to stay the same the whole way through. The sign of good writing, though, is that we understand what is happening in spite of the direction, and Simmons' performance has enough depth to help us through.
Jacky T's sound design has some good ideas, but doesn't work to move the story forward. I couldn't tell if the song's chosen had any particular significance, and whilst the cassette fast forwarding sounds were clever they didn't make a strong enough statement on their own. It was a fun reference to the famous phenomenon of Deadheads recording concerts though.
Deadheads is a really lovely, intimate night of theatre. The space is cosey with very limited seating so book early to make sure you get in! You will experience an evening of colourful psychedelia and wonderful performances telling an important story. Sometimes abuse does not leave bruises, and not everyone grows up.