Launching the Gate Theatre’s autumn season, American writer Adam Rapp’s 2011 play is a reality-blurring trip into an urban purgatory of hotels and too-empty houses, as told by a schoolgirl.
Sixteen-year-old Bernadette has ditched Whitney Academy, a posh prep school in the north east, to go to New York City and tell her boyfriend Mike that she’s pregnant. But he’s nowhere to be found and she ends up spending time with his cancer-stricken father and meeting a man in a dive bar.
Those are the bare bones of the plot, but Rapp loops these events through layers of surrealism. They’re read aloud to us from a diary by actor Shannon Tarbet (who may or may not be Bernadette – director Christoper Haydon plays with this note of ambiguity). The play takes a meta-theatrical turn as meaning and identity fragment.
A mesmersing Tarbet imbues ‘Bernadette’ with a hypnotic stillness, punctuated by moments of blank rage. She’s a spectre at the feast, a sardonic witness to the dying and the deadbeat she gives voice. It’s easy to forget that – apart from a brief appearance by Trevor Michael Georges as a janitor – she’s the only person on stage.
Taking place on a many-mirrored recreation of a period set from French dramatist Jean Genet’s 1947 play ‘The Maids’ – which Bernadette is rehearsing at school – Haydon’s production has an effectively dreamlike, fantastical quality. It’s an unsettling mental landscape as well as a physical space.
If there’s any drawback here, it’s the numbing inevitability of Rapp’s script – the sense that whatever happens, however catastrophic, the monotonous routine of life will continue remorselessly and relentlessly. That may be true, but while there’s something hypnotic about watching that rhythm play out, it’s also distancing.