Gambrels? What are gambrels? And what are they doing in the sky? This was just one of my two initial reactions upon hearing that The Landing Theatre Company was producing Houston playwright Elizabeth A. M. Keel’s play Gambrels of the Sky. The other reaction? Hooray, amaze-balls and yippee, a new play! As in brand-new. Well, almost. Keel did recently stage the show in the bookshop of New York’s Dramatist Guild. But since we don’t get that many new plays premiering here in Houston we’ll ignore that and pretend we’re the first ones to see it.
So back to that gambrel question – I looked it up so you didn’t have to. A gambrel is a symmetrical, two-sided roof with two slopes on each side constructed both for maximum headroom and so that snow flies off it easily. No wonder perpetually heat-waved Houstonians were scratching their heads over this one.
Now, what a sloped, snow-repellent roof has to do with Eve, the Tree of Knowledge and getting kicked out of Eden – which, according to the press materials, is what this play is riffing on – I had no idea. Add to the narrative mix the promise of interdimensional travel, and my confusion grew.
But confusion prior to seeing a new show is just fine, because it’s new and a new play is not yet known. New is also exciting and fresh and risky and full of possibility. I am totally down for new. And I was totally down to see what the hell (pun not intended…maybe just a little) was up with this story of a dimension-hopping Eve and the potentially slanty-roofed garden from whence she came.
Let’s just get the roof thing out of the way right off the bat. A gambrel is mentioned but once in the play as a nicely constructed but minor metaphor among dozens of other more important biblical, emotional and physical metaphors/allusions/insinuations that make up this 90-minute fantasy drama.
With a script and a set that feels snatched right off the pages of an Old Testament-tinged graphic novel, Gambrels, under the nimble and assured direction of Leighza Walker, begins the way all good fantasy stories begin, with a quest. In a penthouse office (rendered with great visual appeal by Clinton Hopper) that resembles a cluttered occult shop, a cauldron sits. Eve (handsomely played by Cheramie Hopper) throws all manner of things into the pot in her quest to conjure a man. This is an Eve post-banishment. Six thousand years after Eden, we’re told. And apparently she needs to get laid. Or so we assume; Keel never really tells us why Eve has this desperation for a dude.
The items being brewed have been purchased from another dimension, one that Eve visits via the portal in her office cabinet. Items like the tail of a beloved family pet, sheep’s wool and most amusingly, hope, which Eve tells us is the most expensive thing to procure. And just when you think this is weird enough, Keel makes it known that the dimension in which Eve lives, the one where the play takes place, is yet another unearthly dimension entirely. Can you imagine all the air miles you’d get for that kind of travel?
But Eve isn’t alone in the space she calls her new, hedonistic home. She has sidekicks. There’s Rose (the superlative baby-voiced but saucily funny Cindy Lou Parker), decked out like Madonna circa the "Lucky Star" years. Rose is Eve’s ripe and rosy-cheeked No. 2 and has been jumping dimensions (and happily selling her body) since she was 13. She was in a cab with a trick when she came upon Eve’s dimension and decided to dump the client and stay. Then there’s smart but fierce September (Shelby Marie showing off nice physical command), an accountant bored with her regular/lawful existence whom Eve brought over when she found her begging for trouble and adventure to invade her life.
Keel has the three of them getting up to all sorts of no good, as ordered by Eve. They steal, they kill, the wreak havoc on the other creatures in their dimension, ostensibly so Eve can make her man spell work, but here Keel is both too vague in motivation and grand in bad behavior for us to really get on the story bandwagon. It isn’t until Rose comes home with a stray — a magical creature – that things get interesting. Dog, as they call it (a terrific Callina Situka looking like a reptilian version of Pris from Blade Runner), stirs up all kinds of trouble and seems to be making Rose quite ill in the process. Meanwhile, September is secretly having health issues of her own that may force her to take flight and turn against Eve.
It’s hard to speak of the rest without spoiling the surprises Keel has up her sleeve, and they are good turns of plot. Rose and September and Dog of course aren’t simply bit players thrown in for comedic or conflict-stirring effect. Although they do perform those functions as well, especially Rose, with her amusing naughty-girl antics, and Dog with his/her suspicious scheming. Instead, Keel’s purpose for them is bigger. How big? Biblical, in the literal sense.
The temptation, the culprit, the fruit, the one that guards the gates after eviction, all these biblical individuals and motifs get folded back into Keel’s plot near the end of the play. Curious, then, that when Shadow (a mellifluous Jason Duga) appears as perhaps the man Eve conjured, we can’t figure out how he fits into the Eden myth. Perhaps I slept through that chapter of religious studies (quite possible), but no amount of wracking my brain could place his purpose in the story.
Still, even if we’re a bit confused as to how it’s all supposed to metaphor together, we’re certainly swept up in the tone of the drama thanks in large part to Travis Ammons's moody sound design, which ranges from the low, nefarious hum of fluorescent lights to a stomachache effect to the eerie and suspenseful music-box tinkling employed in between scenes. In combination with Hopper’s set design, which in addition to Eve’s supernatural office also features an otherworldly, massive tree trunk growing from the stage floor high up into the lighting grid, Ammons’s soundscape for the show results in the best realization of an alternate dimension I’ve seen onstage.
Wondering what happened to Eve after God kicked her out of Eden and questioning what she might desire in exile is a splendid place from which to begin crafting a play. And Keels has done a commendable job mixing this theological inquiry with a modern, trendy fantasy/sci-fi storytelling genre.
But what of it in the end? What do we learn, and what is Keel trying to tell us? To her credit, she doesn’t give us a neatly packaged happy conclusion. Nor does she overlay preachy, girl-power politics on her outcome. However, she doesn’t give us an intellectually satisfying ending, either.
After writing that is by turns funny and smart, Keel reverts to cliché themes as the drama comes to a close. We get speeches about needing to know darkness in order to appreciate light, a Wizard of Oz "no place like home" speech and some Freudian underpinnings of a woman needing her daddy to love her again.
As I sat there waiting for the insight or epiphany or at least the punch in the stomach that never came, I admit I was disappointed. But as I said, new has its ups and downs. And in the end, I’ll measure Gambrels of the Sky by its many ups as opposed to a concluding down.
Hats off to Keel, a promising Houston writer I eagerly await more from and an equal doff of the chapeau to Landing Theatre for taking the chance and bringing us this untested but intriguing new work.
Gambrels of the Sky continues through August 20 at Landing Theatre, 1119 Providence. For information call 562-502-7469 or visit landingtheatre.org. $10 to $100.