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A Bird in the Hand: Erin Courtney's A Map of Virtue

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It is said that the people with the most symmetrical faces are those that we find the most attractive. If this is true, and let's suppose it is, there is something deeply satisfying about symmetry to us humans. We enjoy it on visual level of aesthetics, but for someone like me, who enjoys a complex art such as theater, I also appreciate thematic symmetry when I see/hear/feel it.

Erin Courtney's new play A Map of Virtue is a creative interplay between an interesting story and a boldly metatheatrical structure. The result is a piece of poetry whose form sculpts its content into a dynamic piece of art. Though the plot itself is intriguing, it lacks the firm, crisp symmetry that the surrounding frame so fluidly exemplifies.

But first a quick bit of context. Erin Courtney's play is the latest offering from 13P, a group of 13 playwrights who each become the artistic director in charge of their own production. This year is entitled the "imPlosion season," as Courtney is P#12 after P#13 Sarah Ruhl shows her play this summer, the organization will disband. I have been lucky enough to see P#10 Madeleine George's The Zero Hour and P#11 Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

With this in mind, I sat down to Courtney's latest offering. And I was not disappointed. As I said before, the symmetrical structure of the play, which is present in lines, staging, and overall form, is what stuck out to me the most. The play has listed seven virtues that organize the action you see before you, resulting in a sort of ladder effect: seven scenes on each side of a major event.

The audience is led on this journey by an unusual narrator, one whose metatheatrical function is not only evident in her stage-direction-sounding-dialogue, but also in her relationship to the scenes. From the very start we see that this character, well-played by Birgit Huppuch, is somehow set apart from the rest of the cast. The revelation of exactly why was one of my favorite moments in the play, so I will not ruin it for you!

I will say that she has a relation to birds, which are a major trope in the play itself. You see, birds just keep popping up for Sarah (Maria Striar) and Mark (Jon Norman Schneider). The funny thing is, the birds seem to both herald and follow Sarah and Mark's coincidental meetings as well. This premise is wonderfully strange in that it exists in the liminal place between realistic coincidence and outright metaphor. Interestingly, it this particular aspect of the story that felt unresolved for me at the close of the play, and I found myself wanting this beautifully quirky part of the plot to follow the play's solid thematic project.

I always say that whenever I am focused on aspects of the play itself, it is a good sign that the other elements of the play were quite good. The entire ensemble did an excellent job. Director Ken Rus Shmoll not only ensured an overall unity of style, but also created some beautiful tableaus in the course of the piece, especially through the use of shadows.

The use of shadow was also of specific interest to me because of the surreal nature of some of the characters and objects on stage. As the actors used the stage, their shadows acted as both funhouse mirror and ghostly double, reiterating the liminal space between the more realistic and surrealistic aspects of the plot itself. I unabashedly love theater that strives to utilize the medium in a productive way. A Map of Virtue does not to film, but I would argue that it is its masterful use of the possibilities of live theater that makes it an exciting piece.

And make no mistake, I found it to be an exciting piece in many ways. Though the plot was not as polished and crisp as the form, I am evaluating A Map of Virtue based on its own very high standard. In other words, if I didn't think that Courtney had put much thought into the form of the play itself, I would not make such a point about the holes in the plot. But, at the end of the day, the play is an entertaining new work, and a perfectly lovely bird worth having in the hand.