Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 8 November 2021

Review: Gnit at Polonsky Shakespeare Center

Polonsky Shakespeare Center ⋄ October 30-November 21, 2021

“The temerity to see yourself at the center of it all”: Does Will Eno’s newest critique the myth of the hero’s journey, or just give us another example of it? Ran Xia isn’t so sure.

Ran Xia
Joe Curnutte and Christy Escobar in <i>Gnit</i>. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Joe Curnutte and Christy Escobar in Gnit. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

A boy goes on a journey, a pilgrimage even, in pursuit of himself, because he needs to, because he is nothing but, drum roll… himself.

It’s how most adventure stories begin, isn’t it? The Byronic hero is loved by all despite of his flaws; he bathes in the spotlight with a sense of familiarity and ownership, incapable of seeing himself except at the center. And he usually wins the heart of a (few) princess(es).

“But it does take a certain temerity to see yourself at the center of it all”: Will Eno makes his commentary through the mouth of Solvay (a poignant Jasmine Batchelor), loosely based on Solveig (the Penelope in Ibsen’s original Peer Gynt, who waited just as patiently as the Ithacan queen). Except here, she appears as a stark contrast to Peter Gnit (Joe Curnutte), the angelized version of our archetypal protagonist. Staying in the house Gnit had built for the two of them, she was self-assured in a quiet, yet unflinching sort of way.

But I digress. Back at the center of everything, the boy, Peter Gnit, is on his journey, and he gets excited by things: “This is the moment. This is what I believe, now.”

Until, of course, the next sparkling moment.

Along the way, he kidnaps someone else’s bride he thought would be for the rest of his life, but not before falling for Solvay. “What can I do—I gotta be me,” he says as he dumps the bride in the woods and makes for his one true love, but not before actually wedding a woman in green, fathering her child, but not before running off completely to avoid responsibilities—which seems his main prerogative.

Peter’s aging mother (the sublime Deborah Hedwall) waits behind, as moms do, while the little boys are out slaying trolls, in a boy’s bedroom, where most adventure stories begin—this one is no exception, for alas this is a story about a boy who, even when he’s old and grey, remains a boy.

“I’m amazed the world’s children don’t all die of guilt for the things they put the world’s mothers through.” Yet she carries on loving her son, like what a mother is expected to.

If Peter Gnit loves his mother, like a son is expected to, his actions never signify it, seeming inattentive and entirely focused on his own pursuits and whims even after she pleads for him to stay; and if he loves Solvay—well, he leaves her behind for 30 years without so much as a goodbye, all the while having “a string of really successful relationships” as he journeys all the way to Egypt.

In true Eno fashion, the characters in this piece share a dryness in the way they communicate (evoking a similar style to Thom Pain, which Oliver Butler also directed a few years ago at Signature Center, as well as the more succinct Lady Grey). However, the neutral tone conveyed a sense of sincerity that enthralled me in those solo pieces, but here came through as an emotional detachment and borderline lackadaisical. It seems as though the piece teetered between a sagacious romp in the style of Chuck Mee and a Beckettian minimalism. Still I was delighted by the healthy amount of silliness and an interesting two-dimensional quality to the carousel of characters around Peter, portrayed by the chameleonic Christy Escobar and Jordan Bellow, as well as David Shih, who is a riot playing a whole ensemble of people cheekily named simply “the Town.” He quipped with himself with ease, portraying a menagerie of personalities in rapid successions of astute choices.

Perhaps my distain for the protagonist distracted me from the play’s commentaries on the stereotype he represents, which to me seem lukewarm. Even though softly cutting deep is what I’ve always loved about Eno’s works, here, I was craving for something with higher definition.

Speaking of high definition, one must note the stacked design team: Kimie Nishikawa’s set evokes a sense of wonder, putting a Scandinavian minimal pragmatism (modular cross sections of houses and abstract backdrops) against two ethereal but realistic mounds of hills, all of which ground the narrative in a liminal yet tangible space. And the kaleidoscopic parade of costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter and Avery Reed astounded me visually at every turn.

“Being a person is so wild,” says the Bride early in the play. It’s a familiar tale, as much as Grieg’s recognizable, albeit overused (in every single troll movie) tune: A boy goes on a quest in pursuit of what it means to be his most authentic self; decades later, he’s learned not much of anything, still blinded by the spotlight. He’s a storyteller, or a liar, depending on your point of view. Is he redeemable? Is he even meant to be redeemable?

Perhaps that’s the most successful bit of Gnit: it’s ruined the hero’s journey for me, perhaps forever. And perhaps that’s just the point.

Ran Xia

Ran Xia is an interdisciplinary theater artist. Her works have been produced at IRT (Pomegrenade), HERE, Dixon Place, The Brick ([ai]), The Wild Project, The Tank (Echo; Siren, also directed Independent Study, The Tallest Man in the World, etc.). A frequent collaborator of Exquisite Corpse Co. (audio/visual installation Echo at the Memory House, on Governors Island), a current Resident Director at The Flea, and a resident artist at Access Theater. Assistant Directing credits include: The Great Leap (by Lauren Yee, Dir. Taibi Magar at the Atlantic Theater), and Refrigerated Dreams by Carrie Mae Weems, Nona Hendryx, Francesca Harper, and Niegel Smith at Joe's Pub.

Review: Gnit at Polonsky Shakespeare Center Show Info

Produced by Theater for a New Audience

Directed by Oliver Butler

Written by Will Eno

Scenic Design Kimie Nishikawa; costume design by Ásta Bennie Hostetter and Avery Reed

Lighting Design Amith Chandrashaker

Sound Design Lee Kinney

Cast includes Jasmine Batchelor, Jordan Bellow, Joe Curnutte, Christy Escobar, Deborah Hedwall, and David Shih

Original Music Daniel Kluger

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 2 hours including 1 intermission


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