Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The theater department’s production of “Burn This,” written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Jeanette Leopold ’13, is exquisite. In one of the first scenes, Anna (Anita Castillo-Halvorssen ’15) delivers a monologue to her roommate Larry (Patrick Ross ’15) that paints a chilling yet beautiful picture. She has just attended the funeral of her former roommate and friend, Robbie. Forced to stay the night at Robbie’s family’s house, she ends up sleeping in his nephew’s room in the attic, where the walls are decorated with the butterflies the boy has spent the day catching. “I wake up, it’s not quite light, really, you can’t see the room much,” she says, “But there’s something in there […] There’s this intermittent soft flutter sound. I think what the hell is – Larry, the – oh, Lord, the walls are just pulsating. All those butterflies are alive. They’re beating their bodies against the wall – all around me. The kid’s put them in alcohol; he thought he’d killed them, they’d only passed out.”
Much of the play, produced as Leopold’s Honors Directing Thesis, deals with bringing the dead, in a sense, back to life. The negative space that Robbie’s death leaves is the void around which the plays proceeds. A set composed of half-imagined structural outlines (designed by Marta Roncada ’14) emphasizes this space.
As literary critic Pierre Macherey writes, “Like a planet revolving round an absent sun, an ideology is made of what it does not mention.” Anna, Larry and Robbie’s older brother, Pale (Alexander Rojavin ’15), are forced to build ideologies of the grieving, ways of living with absence as presence. They try to revive him with memory and stories, but the moment Robbie’s gravity is most felt is when he is not being directly summoned, when the fluttering of his wings seems to surprise everyone. In another silent room during another late night, Anna and Pale, two people who loved Robbie differently, fall into each other on an old couch, and something awakens in the room and in each of them that was not there before. Robbie is at the root of this connection; his influence outlives him.
Pale first stumbles into Anna’s apartment in a tightly-wound coil of coke, bluster, and repressed sadness. He is greasy, manic, and off-balance, spitting racial epithets and monologues about the sea and thrusting his anguished face behind Anna’s back so she won’t see him cry. Rojavin plays him with extraordinary range and control. Unfortunately, Anna is already dating Burton (Daniel Cho ’15), who is not only successful but sweet. “He’s pretty much a perfect ideal boyfriend,” Cho explains, who brings charm to the role. Unfortunately, Anna and Pale are both empty in similar ways, and use each other to fill up the space of their absent suns. Castillo-Halvorssen’s Anna is awash in expertly executed subtleties – of voice, expression, and physicality. She can’t take her eyes off of Pale during their first conversation – she continues to look even as his speech devolves into profane paranoia, as his hands shake. Even when she is disgusted by what he says, she grants him the gift of attention, and their exchange, in turn, is sure to captivate the audience.
“Burn This,” by dealing with a specific tragedy, broaches broader themes that the audience can relate to. Robbie was gay, a fact that his family tragically refuses to acknowledge. Sexuality in general influences the motivations and struggles of the characters. Loss, too, is portrayed raw and cutting in a way that is healthy but uncommon to see. “Grief is something that we don’t talk about at Swarthmore really at all. […] People deal with it by themselves, especially because they don’t want to be a hassle to other people,” Castillo-Halvorssen said.
Burton sees Anna as an example of somebody whose emotions are unavoidably on display. “There’s just such an ownership of her current state of instability and chaos that Swarthmore students like to suppress,” he said. He observes that Swarthmore students tend to focus on factual or political issues “instead of how we’re feeling,” he said. “Burn This” drips with what we emotion-shy students might refer to as “all the feels.”
Most significantly, however, the play maintains a delicate, dialectic balance between grief, death, and darkness, and the points of light that make everything visible and livable. “This play hits the audience with a sense of loss […] and by the end of the play heals you a bit with the love,” Leopold said. She sees this lightness as an essential part of making art. “Theater is in large part for the audience […] and I don’t want to give a gift that’s too painful, then it’s not really a gift,” she said.
Ross agreed, noting that a show needs a degree of hope, “otherwise, no one would want to see the play.” Ross’s character, Larry, in many ways supplies that lightness as the bearer of often desperately-need comic relief. His lines, which Ross doles out delightfully, reverberate with warmth and flippancy.
“Burn This” is very real because it has a perfect balance of entertainment and efficacy,” Cho said, explaining that a play that veered too far into entertainment would make an audience feel good, but it might ring false, while the opposite would leave an audience feeling devastated. “I want [the audience] to be able to find the hopeful spots and the laughter in the situations that are usually dark and seem hopeless,” Rojavin said. “Without laughter, what are we left with?” he asked. As Anna puts it in the show, “We cried the whole day, but don’t break your heart, you know?”
For the characters in “Burn This,” their despair is already laid out and pinned to the wall when the first stirrings of hope and change are felt. Their grief flutters and shudders but is not quite able to break free. It strains against its pins. It remains, wings splayed, beautiful and dying.
Burn This will be performed Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Lang Performing Arts Center’s Frear Ensemble Theater. The performances are free and open to the public.
Photos by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette.