In Jason Sherman's The Retreat, Rachel has written a script about faith. Disillusioned film producer David has been searching for something to believe in. When the script lands on David's desk, he's prepared to burn down everything, including his deal for a guaranteed hit film with a bankable writer, to develop Rachel's screenplay. David invites Rachel to a prestigious writer's retreat program in the Canadian countryside, but their fast-developing professional and romantic relationship struggles under the arrival of David's pragmatic producing partner, Jeff. With Rachel on the threshold of becoming a writer, Jeff and David vie for influence over what kind of writer –and what kind of person– she will be.
The three characters are a joy to watch. Director Emma Jude Harris enriches Sherman's witty, melodic dialogue with the injection of a vivid chemistry. Scenes in which the trio share the stage are a particular highlight, the conflicting perspectives beautifully animated into a tense ecosystem of opposition. While all three performances are admirable, Michael Feldsher is exceptional as Jeff, concealing a wolfish intelligence beneath a free and easy nature. Jonathan Tafler also deserves mention for his performance as Rachel's dying Israeli father, whose comic stylings as the archetypical Jewish elder are complicated by a deep sadness and an even deeper faith.
The production itself is tight and well-suited to the space. The lighting and projection design, by Ben Jacobs and Cheng Keng respectively, succefully craft minimalistic but effectively curated atmospheres for each of the play's many locations. The set design, music and scene transitions likewise all contribute to a holistically smooth and controlled production that effortlessly guides the pacey narrative.
Yet the highest praise must be saved for Sherman's script. The patient, controlled narrative holds seemingly infinite rewards within its small-scale story of four people and a screenplay. The profound empathy Sherman holds for his characters and his masterful grasp on the play's themes and inquiries renders the characters both remarkably well-realised, empathetic creations as well as powerful vessels for the wrestling ideologies the narrative explores. Set against the historical backdrop of the 1993 Israel-Palestine peace talks, Sherman presents multiple conflicts, both internal and external, which cannot be resolved through binaries.
At once an interpersonal conflict between two producers and a writer, an investigation into the relationship between art and commerce, a meditation on passion vs. pragmatism and a story about faith, The Retreat is an astoundingly rich text. Jason Sherman delivers layers of meaning heaped on top of one other, managing to expose each one without ever losing the drama amidst the dialectic; a rare, miraculous achievement.
It runs until 13 May.
Review: Seb Flatau