MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Moving Nonsense and Beauty from Theatre22

Cast of Nonsense and Beauty (c) Truman Buffet

I can’t recommend Theatre22’s current production highly enough. It marks the West Coast premiere of Scott C. Sickles’s Nonsense and Beauty, a dramatic portrayal of the decades-long love story between novelist E.M. Forster and Bob Buckingham.

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish and compelling; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from , runs: He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his

Sickles is a welcome discovery for me. Nonsense and Beauty received its world premiere in March 2019 at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Structured as a mostly linear sequence of brief, cinematic scenes, the play traces the emotional and sexual connections between the lovers from their first encounter during an Oxbridge boat race party in 1930 until after Forster’s death in 1970. Aside from a few longueurs that could be clipped, the tempo flows smoothly and is engaging.

The dialogue is gratifyingly stylish, compelling, without pretension; Sickles occasionally incorporates excerpts from Forster’s prose as well. (The eponymous quote, from The Longest Journey, runs: “He felt that nonsense and beauty have close connections,—closer connections than Art will allow,—and that both would remain when his own heaviness and his own ugliness had perished.”)

Based on biographical events, Nonsense and Beauty poignantly, without self-congratulatory hindsight, reimagines the atmosphere of risk-taking, secret intimacy, fear, and life-affirming liberation that surrounded Forster (Eric Mulholland) and his much younger lover, a policeman at that (Russell Matthews). Sickles doesn’t limit himself to the couple’s relationship but also explores the confusion that unfolds when Bob decides to marry May, an independent-minded nurse who has cared for him — and who loves literature, especially Forster’s writing (Jennifer Ewing). What results is a far cry from the stereotypical love triangle but a moving portrayal of the complex web of entanglements and loyalties of an enduring love.

The love story expands to include the circle of Forster’s close friends, represented by the witty, outspoken, and courageously out fellow writer and editor J.R. Ackerley (Hisam Goueli). His mother Lily (Marty Mukhalian), with whom he still lives in the first years of his relationship, observes judgmentally but suppresses her own critique after a certain point.

Corey McDaniel, who is Theatre22’s founder and producing artistic director, does the company proud directing a first-rate cast who each bring an individual stamp to their characters. Thanks to the efficiently Minimalist design, the flash of color provided by a symbolically fraught rosebush is especially effective.

But the achievement is bittersweet, as it seems this is, unexpectedly, Theatre22’s farewell production. I fondly recall the company’s inaugural show from almost a decade ago (also directed by McDaniel). Theatre22 has been a much-needed part of Seattle’s theater ecosystem, so it’s painful to realize all that will vanish. All the more reason not to miss Nonsense and Beauty, which runs at the Seattle Public Theater through October 2.

Filed under: review, theater

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