by Teddy Nicholas · October 17, 2014
Five young performers (Rachel Dostal, Stella Lapidus, Alice Chastain-Levy, Violet Newman and Candela Cubria) all under the age of eleven inhabit one character named J as she ages from three to eighty, telling the story of her life in 600 Highwaymen’s Employee of the Year. Written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, Employee of the Year is an audacious ninety-minute epic about the search for identity, about families, about loss, about the nature of storytelling, and ultimately what it means to be a human being in this rather complicated world.
When J is a teenager, her childhood home burns down and her mother is killed in the fire. When her mother’s friends take J in to live with her, she is told that she is in fact adopted and that her birth mother is a mystery. She runs away and embarks on a lifelong journey to find her mother, travelling from Colorado to Chicago, meeting relatives for the first time, working countless jobs, falling in love, becoming a mother, and always in constant pursuit of the birth mother like Ahab chasing the white whale.
As they explored in their last show The Record, which played here at the Under the Radar Festival in January, Browde and Silverstone are interested in the ways movement communicate from performer to audience. In The Record, forty-five strangers rehearsed choreographed movements individually and performed collectively for the first time on the night of each performance. The Record was completely wordless, relying solely on the energy between the performers, performers vs. movement, and the dynamic between performer and audience.
In Employee of the Year, the movement energy is there, but this time it is layered upon J’s narrative. Movement seems disconnected to the action of the plot, echoing work similar to that of the playwright-director Toshiki Okada. Sometimes, the abstract movement lands at a moment in the story that seems to suggest staging the drama. But mostly the movement features as a shifting dynamic between the performers, suggesting drama rather than blocking it.
The narrative itself speeds up in time, sometimes rather quickly, jump-cutting ahead from twenty to thirty-five. At one point, the narrative completely shifts, taking the audience into yet another narrative. Cubria breaks the fourth wall to tell us about how her mother will drive her back home to Williamsburg, and when she falls asleep, she’ll think about this show, the show we’re watching. And then she sings.
The a cappella songs by David Cale are deceptively simple and yet haunting. Almost always playful, the songs sometimes drive the action of the narrative, or comment on thematic elements, or function as both. The stark simplicity of the melodies counterpoint the depth of its philosophical questioning, such as if we’ll even remember this performance when we’re sixty years old, and if so, what will we remember about it, and the value of remembering.
As 600 Highwaymen explored in their piece This Great Country, a retelling of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with seventeen performers swapping in and out of roles, so too do they explore shifting identities in Employee of the Year. Having the performers pass on the persona of J as J pursues the absentee mother exemplifies the constant shifting of identities we explore in life. In This Great Country, the performers were a complete mix, or cross-section of humanity. Willy Loman became a true everyperson: cross-gender, colorblind casting, against age and type. It felt completely revolutionary in a way that made complete sense. In Employee of the Year, child actors freeze the personas they inhabit, even as the narrative advances in age and in tone. What starts with a three-year-old’s game in the front yard with sticks eventually finds its way to an elderly woman in a supermarket staring at a photograph. The child is always there. The child shapes the adult. The child is parent to the adult, even when the child is parentless.