WP Theater’s world-premiere production of Natural Shocks by Lauren Gunderson, America’s most-produced playwright of 2017-18, has been advertised as “darkly hilarious,” but there’s nothing funny about it. It is, however, shocking. The solo show, directed by May Adrales and starring Pascale Armand as Angela, tackles the theme of a woman in crisis, with the natural disaster of a tornado serving as an extended metaphor for the turbulent violence in her life and her desperate attempt to escape its fury.
Presented in the format of a nonlinear stream-of-consciousness monologue, Angela at first seems to be talking to herself as she takes refuge in her basement from the impending storm. But it soon becomes clear that she is directly addressing the audience, as she reveals her ebullient personality, makes some attempts at jokes, discusses her professional expertise and love of statistics, probability, and dice, then slowly begins to get to the heart of the real imminent danger, recounting memories from her life, confessing her increasing distress and regrets, and exposing the momentous secrets she’s been hiding.
The play’s title is derived from Hamlet’s renowned “To be, or not to be” soliloquy – “The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to” (Act 3, Scene 1) – to which the character makes repeated reference. And her narrative poses the same crucial question to herself – “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles.” Along with her recitations of Shakespeare, Angela also sings lines from the upbeat revivalist song “Get Happy” (popularized by Judy Garland’s 1950 recording), with the lyrics advising to “forget your troubles” symbolizing the woman’s lies, denials, and “complicity” in the traumatic events that brought her to the basement, as she gets “ready for the Judgment Day.” In so doing, Gunderson walks the very thin line between a statistical call to action and victim blaming, in our country’s dead-serious epidemics of domestic abuse and gun violence (which, everyone should remember, are the fault of the perpetrators, not the victims).
Armand’s performance (though not yet flawless in her delivery of the lines on the date I attended) transitions from the chatty energy of a woman determined to find shelter, to her increasing fear and panic with the realization that she might not, shifting her emotions with the unexpected twists and turns of the plot. Adrales keeps her moving actively around the stage, at times climbing up on a desk to peer out of the basement window at the approaching disaster, and then falling to her knees to pray for salvation, no longer convinced that she will remain safe.
A casual everyday costume by Jen Caprio and realistic scenic design by Lee Savage suit the show’s setting in “a normal house in America right now.” Amith Chandrashaker’s redolent lighting, and disturbing sound and original music by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes, effectively enhance the height of the drama and send shock waves through the audience.
Gunderson’s Natural Shocks raises important points about the need to take action in times of crises. But, tragically, statistics show that women who leave their batterers are at a 75% greater risk of being killed by the batterer than those who stay. That’s a critical issue that must be addressed by society, law enforcement, politicians, the medical profession, and concerned artists before anyone can truly feel safe in a proactive situation. We can only hope that the conversation continues and solutions are at hand.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, without intermission.