Review: ‘Still Life with Rocket’ at Theater Alliance

A few facts are laid at your feet as you move through a couple of simple rooms. Black and white video on old portable television shows a boxing match, which is no match for the clutter. A person occupies each room but you can’t engage their gaze and they won’t answer questions. You draw your conclusion about the person sitting in the room, or you venture down the hallway to examine a chart with arrows, newspaper print and yellowed clippings. Should you read the small type that is highlighted bold green, or is it design that stands alone as a collage of ideas? These objects of interaction shape your experience in Still Life with Rocket, conceived and directed by Mollye Maxner with movement directed by Mollye Maxner and Kelly Maxner.

Annie Houston, Justin Weaks, and Teresa Spencer. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Out of an improvisational, collaborative process with the seven artists, Mollye Maxner has shaped a work about estranged siblings brought together by an aging parent. Annie Houston performs the role of Etta, the matriarch of the family who is suffering from dementia. Physically realized and emotionally resonant, Annie Houston’s portrayal is strong and convincing. She is immediately vulnerable with her faded memory and she is unaware of the options for her future discussed by her children. There is Nathan (played by Justin Weaks) who is doing the heavy lifting of day-to-day care, taking on the maintenance of dignity through responding to personal needs like bathing and bathroom, flipping the parent/child roles with loving grace.

We first hear him and see him as we enter the performing area, a large black box with seating on three sides. There is a square marked off in the center. Two women, Devinne Cook and Kate McFalls are dressed in boxing gear and are sluggishly propelled toward one another. Is it an embrace or a confrontation? The dance is constant, connecting like a caress or shifting balance to find resolve on boxing ring stools placed in opposite corners. Justin Weaks calls out the match like an announcer, but concurs with notes and makes additions at the same time, bouncing bravely to describe the punches or to rap poetic. The figures from the old black and white video are real; and the announcer is a boy alone in his room, putting things together and processing his own creation. At this point, we don’t know he is Nathan.

The slow delivery works well. You see characters whole, as they are now, but the information about the past is what is important; like the bold birthmark on the back of Etta’s right leg shared by Kate McFalls, the Dancer/Woman. The gradual peeling away of details from long ago uncovers the family members’ identities. We begin to recognize fragments that drive the estrangement and find pieces from history past that root the family members to each other.

The other siblings are Tracy (played by Teresa Spencer), Cyrus (played by Jared Shamberger) and Caleb (played by Ben Gunderson). In an awkward reunion, it’s a celebratory birthday for Etta. Three wooden tables are pieced together like a jigsaw, but Caleb has been away for a very long time, wants attention and doesn’t grasp the slow melt of his mother or the fluctuating dynamics of figuring out the next step. Ben Gunderson as Caleb embodies the role of the insensitive interloper shifting the tables around, beginning an excellent dance with his four siblings that drive the tables much harder than any bargain. Teresa Spencer as Tracy plays along with the willfulness, waiting for something better to happen. In her own way, she is every bit as vulnerable as the matriarch who has slipped into dementia.

Annie Houston, Justin Weaks, Jared Shamberger, Teresa Spencer, and Ben Gunderson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Jared Shamberger as Cyrus comes off as the ‘good person.’ Later, after the shaving of a few layers, it’s a different picture entirely, with a few ‘a-ha’ moments dawning as hidden truths are bared. Immediately likable and reasonable, Jared Shamberger builds up the trust, reassuring, even when the games accelerate.

Lighting design by William K. D’Eugenio puts stars in the sky. In the bare black room, there was room for additions like the straight lines of light that accented the marked-off square and the hand-held instruments that defined a new location. Sound Design by Matthew M. Nielson adds to the ambience, either with the music coming weakly from the portable cassette player, or with more booming atmosphere that pushes the physicality.

Aging is something we like to put on the back burner, and estrangements and half-truths can be put on hold. It’s just too hard to think about and too easy to put away. Still Life with Rocket reminds viewers that someday you might want to come to a reckoning, and hope you are not the only one there.

Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission.


Still Life with Rocket plays through July 2, 2017 at Theater Alliance performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


Magic Time!: ‘Still Life with Rocket’ at Theater Alliance as Voyage to a New Form: A Q&A with Director Mollye Maxner by John Stoltenberg

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Jane Franklin
Jane Franklin received a MFA from The Ohio State University as a University Fellow and certification from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute for Movement Studies. Jane Franklin’s choreography has been presented at multiple venues and festivals in the mid-Atlantic region and southwestern US and internationally in the UK and in Mexico. A recipient of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region Creative Communities Award, Jane has developed innovative and collaborative projects combining dancers with the round wall skateboarding community, with a life size kinetic sculpture, with the architecture of a specific site, with dogs & owners, and with interactive live video and sound for numerous public art projects.


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