Broken Grace: Company of Fools' DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

Cristina Ramos and Cameron Clarke in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
Photo courtesy of Malloree Hill.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by John Patrick Shanley, a play about two traumatized and violent people meeting and struggling towards redemption, could easily tip into mere brutality and a last act of misogyny.

But under the excellent direction of Collin Blackard, with stellar intimacy direction by Brooke M. Haney, fight direction by actor-combatant Cristina Ramos, and brave and nuanced acting by Ramos and Artistic Director, Cameron Clarke, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea transforms from a problem play to an explosive exploration of unexpected grace.

Company of Fools' season is set up to compare a 20th Century classic with a 21st Century contemporary piece which explore overlapping themes.  For 2019, CoF is exploring relationships - messy, inconsistent, necessary - and if their season opener is any indication, New York audiences are in for a real treat.

Shanley's play is not without its problems.  As Clarke commented after the show, most people tend to black out the final act of the third scene. (The play runs a tight 80 minutes with no intermission.)  That's because after a night of yelling and loving, of fighting and playing, of revelations of deep dark secrets and even deeper, brighter dreams, the final physical act is the character of Danny (Cameron Clarke) spanking Roberta (Cristina Ramos) after she throws herself over his knee.

This production doesn't pull back from the increasingly confused violence, sensuality and - yes - grace of the act.  It doesn't cover over the kink in our characters that led us here.  But the entire production team has seriously considered why this is the climax of the play, and how it is not kink but catharsis.  

While watching (and then eventually, not watching), I was forcibly reminded of some of my other favorite moments of excruciating grace, both from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Six where Buffy cries into Tara's lap as Tara comforts her and Buffy begs not to be forgiven, and Season Seven when a bruised, repentant, and re-ensouled Spike drapes himself, burning, on the cross, and asks if we can all rest now.  All three of these capture the truth that Flannery O'Connor, that other author of brutal transcendence, wrote:

“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

What makes this production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea work is the nuance and build that the production team has given the actors.  Rather than making a joke of Danny's sweetness in wanting something beautiful, of wanting to be a bride, it comes across as a childlike revelation, as delicate and momentous as as a butterfly.  Clarke finds Danny's deep secret not in whether or not Danny killed a man, but in the fact that Clarke's Danny truly hopes he didn't kill someone after all.  Lines, blurted out mid-romance about being afraid that love will kill him offer insight into the secret sweetness that life and time and family and corruption have crusted over him.  So when he starts to spank Roberta, it isn't with sadistic pleasure, but with a painful understanding that she won't believe she's freed, until she feels she's paid her debt.

There are echoes of Hamlet here:

"But Heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister...
I must be cruel only to be kind."
Similarly, it's clear both from the direction, action, and dramaturgy that CoF has wisely chosen to skew the play so that Roberta is the protagonist.  Where, from the script itself, it would be easy to trace Danny's titular arc, and make Roberta the means of his happiness through her emotional labor.  Where, I'm sure, other productions have fallen into the Taming of the Shrew trap of concluding the play with a brutal, gleeful beating followed by a demanding proposal, Blackard focuses the play on Ramos from the very start.  It's clear that she is trying to expunge something from herself, and she has chosen Danny as the means to set her free.  If Danny's secret is sweetness, Ramos' Roberta's secret is that she knows what a woman "ought to be like" - which she believes is sweetness and light, good mothering, good daughterting, and that bride in a dress - and she can't reconcile the trauma that's made her tough as nails and the abuse that keeps her smiling.  When she demands to be treated nice by Danny, her deep secret is that she's been shamed and conditioned into thinking that she deserves nothing.  Nothing, perhaps, but a string of abuse, so that she must demand physical punishment for entertaining an evening of true intimacy.
But what Roberta must come around to are the actual final words, delivered with power by Clarke, that what they both went through happened to them.  What happens next is what they choose.  And they can choose grace.  They must choose grace.

Theatre of Cruelty, Theatre of Brutality, is a tightrope of a genre to walk.  Very few companies manage to delve past the destruction and into the far-more-painful light.  Company of Fools does so, without backing away from the balance of either.

With strong direction and raw performances, Company of Fools' 2019 season is not to be missed.

Highly Recommended.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea plays at the Access Theatre through Sunday, April 14.  Tickets available here.  Check out Company of Fools full season here.


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