Three elegant femmes meet in a community space to discuss love. Two fall in and out of love. Along the way, they engage the audience in brief participatory rituals connected to love and grief.
That’s the plot of Agnes Borinsky’s new show, A Song of Songs, now being presented by the Bushwick Starr at El Puente in Williamsburg. As is, perhaps, clear from that brief description, Borinsky’s show, subtitled “(discourse on love)”, is a play much more interested in its ideas than its characters. The play explores how we gather and how love transforms us—in ways both exhilarating and embarrassing. The play shines as a collective experience, but wavers in its thin story.
(Full disclosure: Agnes is a friend. A Song of Songs grew, in part, out of the Working Group for a New Spirit, a Zoom group that Agnes facilitated with the Bushwick Starr in 2020-2021 and that I participated in.)
Before the show begins, the audience enters El Puente, an enormous community center focused on activism and youth education. For the performance, El Puente has been handsomely outfitted with a beautiful altar in the back, decorated with flowers and sculptures, and an enormous wreath hanging high above the audience. There are seats on three sides of the performing area—an array of couches and cushions that feel cozier than typical theater seats, each seat demarcated by a piece of colored tissue paper.
Borinsky sits, masked, at a table upstage, and soon a recorded voice plays, talking about love and grief. With a minimum of words and movements, Borinsky directs audience members to take the tissue paper on their seats, twist the paper into a flower, and lay their newly formed flowers on the altar. It’s an elegant, welcoming gesture that grounds us in the gathering and adds a pop of color to the scenery. She tells us a bit about the history of El Puente, and an activist’s spark comes through in Borinsky’s clear affection for the community in which she is presenting her work.
Then, the lights go down and the show segues into a hazy love story. Borinsky’s Nadine is quickly infatuated with Sarah (Sekai Abeni). Sarah is cooler than Nadine, and takes more time to fall in love; Sarah’s primary love is for her daughter, Theresa.
The play zeroes in on the embarrassing sincerity of love. A Song of Songs uses heightened, lyrical language that makes sense in the context of Nadine’s infatuation—when connecting through sex and romance, poetry sometimes is not only possible but logical. This vulnerable new love plays out through spontaneous dancing and sex, coupled with slightly out of control behavior from Sarah:
“How did you work your way into every corner of my life? Why do I see your face wherever I go? Why do I crave your smell? I took a pair of your gym shorts so I could smell them at work. This is completely terrifying. Not one of you knows what this feels like, do you?”
As their courtship progresses, Sarah impulsively steals a Tesla. (Who among us hasn’t stolen a Tesla for love?) It’s all charming, silly, sexy, a little ridiculous—like the best crushes.
Under Machel Ross’s fluid direction, there’s also a pleasant, if underdrawn, tactile ingredient in the love story’s staging, as characters frequently knead fresh dough during scenes, in preparation for a later meal.
The play began to lose me, however, with the introduction of Trudy (a charmingly sprite-like Ching Valdes-Aran), Nadine’s godmother. A former revolutionary, she seems to be added to the plot in order to give a political dimension to the meaning of love, but it’s never clear why she appears when she does, or what exactly she believes. Shortly after being introduced, Trudy adds to the soup of opinions about what love is: “Love is a toilet. Love is a bird’s nest. Love is a bomb.” Huh? The production struggles to justify why we should care about this new person or her opinions about love.
As the evening progressed, it grew increasingly difficult to continue to invest in these characters, who speak in grand proclamations but feel more like mouthpieces for declarations of love than actual people in love, with only fragments of backstories to hang on to and little in the way of actual action on stage.
Towards the end of the show, Borinsky breaks the fourth wall in a monologue that feels open and honest, apologizing for not knowing how to wrap things up:
“I want the play to be good, you know?
A good play is supposed to go like this— (a hand closing into a fist)
Tightening towards an inevitable conclusion. A perfect point of meaning. That’s what the critics say. And I don’t know how to do that, and it feels wrong, because the love I’m trying to write about doesn’t go like this, it goes like this— (a hand opening)”
While writing the play, Borinsky tells us that she’s struggled with COVID, anxiety, and overcommitting herself, and now she doesn’t know how to find the words to tie her project up with a neat bow.
Her humane confession feels in the spirit of the warm-hearted gathering she set up at the beginning of the piece—what writer hasn’t faced doubts about how to stick the landing of an ambitious project? It also doesn’t entirely work; the production has forgotten about the audience for too long to easily bring us back in with this direct conversation and communal ritual. But, ultimately, I felt the beating heart of the show here, in the vulnerability Borinsky displayed in talking with us, in helping us make flowers together, and in a closing ritual that encouraged people to write the names of loved ones we grieve on pieces of paper and pin their names to the giant wreath hanging over the space.
At the end, I found myself craving more Agnes, more ritual, more of each other. Forget three enigmatic strangers discoursing about love. I wanted to hear the love poems of everyone around me.