by Ed Malin · April 15, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #63 Ed Malin shares his thoughts on The Tower When I heard that Adam Scott Mazer and AntiMatter Collective were staging The Tower, about the great frontier/cannibalism survival story of the Donner Party, I was afraid in a good way. I saw their entertaining, bloody piece "Death Valley" several years ago.
The Tower is a new twist on the perennial problem: if you and your colleagues are trapped in the snow, would you eat them to survive? It happened to a wagon train trying to cross the Sierra Nevada into California in 1846. However, this really deep piece is not heavy on gore. Instead, there are two psychological hours of being snowbound and worrying about when death will come and how. There is also cutting edge dance music and actors popping up on all sides of the performance space, sometimes politely moving you out of your seat so they can do a scene there.
This play jumps around in time and space. I'm not entirely sure who survived the disturbing snowstorm and flesh eating. More food for thought, of course.
When snow stopped the group's westward journey to California, some of the travelers chose to push on over a mountain pass. These fearless folks included William Eddy (Andrew Krug), Charles Stanton (Scott Raker), Sarah Foster (Marlowe Holden), Margaret Reed (Leah Walsh)--who left her family behind with friends--and their Indian guide, Luisa (Rebecca Hirota). Out of desperation, they draw lots for who will be eaten. But it does not go entirely according to plan.
Meanwhile the young Landrum Murphy (Curry Whitmire) and Virginia Reed (Elizabeth Bays) stay in the camp with Tamzene Donner (Courtney Fenwick) and the limping, atheist Lewis Keseberg (Christopher Norwood). Keseberg seems the most likely to eat everyone else, and is later found with half-eaten bodies. But did he kill them?
Later, Keseberg, who was accused of murder but acquitted, has opened a bar in Sacramento. There, he is visited by James Reed (Joe Petersen), who was thrown out of the original group before the whole snowstorm started. What did they talk about then, and what were they thinking when they first set out across the continent? The show will tell you all these things and more. Go see it.
You might also have the opportunity to have Adam Scott Mazer give you a tarot card reading before the show starts. The chapters within the show are related to tarot.
There is a lot of great historical research in this piece. Sam Kusnetz's projections on the diaphanous curtains of Patrick McNaughton's set include diary entries from the Donner Party. Dramaturg Maya Rook told me that she made a trip out to Donner Lake, scene of this infamous tale. Director Philip Gates deftly shows the spectrum of attitudes (and some hallucinations) the travelers had at different times. To convey the latter, Alana Jacoby's lighting and Will Fulton's sound round out the picture. Stephanie Cox-Williams does the killer special effects, including some gunshots that may be fired in your direction, and the small number of truly disturbing moments in the show. Anna Grace Carter's period costumes just make these mild-mannered people more creepy. Danielle Baskin's props include a bear head, snowshoes, and human body parts.