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Kentucky Cantata

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Marta Reiman and Hayley Treider.
Photo by Sasha Karasev,

Imagine you are the parent of an 18-year-old daughter, a recent high school graduate eager to leave her home in rural Kentucky and head to New York City to study acting. She has talent, a dream, the promise of a sofa to sleep upon, and an appointment with the Stella Adler Studio. And what if you reluctantly let her go alone to that place about which you have nightmares? And what if your very worst nightmare comes to pass?

This is the premise of playwright Paul David Young's devastating new play Kentucky Cantata, now at the HERE Arts Center. It is about a brutal rape committed by an undocumented immigrant, a cab driver who picks up the young woman, Carolyn (Hayley Treider), at the airport and takes her to a deserted parking lot off the highway.

The rape, which occurs early on in the 70-minute play, is not directly depicted, but we are given first-hand accounts of it from Carolyn and from the rapist, Kareem (Tony Naumovski), who says of himself, "I am the one you cannot hear or see, the dark water that envelopes you." Kareem has his own sad tale to tell, but, really, he should not go looking for sympathy from the audience. For the rest of the play, our hearts are entirely with Carolyn and her parents, Larry (Dan Patrick Brady) and Dora (Marta Reiman).

Kentucky Cantata is a brilliantly-composed play in which the metaphorical fourth wall separating the actors from the audience is raised and lowered at various times, so that the effect is one of alternately looking through the two ends of a telescope. Some of the story is deliberately distancing, with an expressionistic tone and narrated directly to the audience. At other times—especially in the scenes between Larry and Dora (exceptionally well acted by Mr. Brady and Ms. Reiman)—the play takes on a naturalistic tenor. Collectively, the two styles engage the heart and the mind throughout.

The play is rich with both imagery and down-to-earth detail. The family is not vaguely from Kentucky, but specifically from Monkeys Eyebrow, Kentucky (a real place). The route the driver takes from the airport is named, as is the business where the parking lot is located. Any New Yorker who has taken that well-traveled route will have no trouble envisioning the locale. The relationship between Larry and Dora is explored as well, and we can see that their marriage is as complicated as any, but that their ties to one another are unbreakable, even in the wake of the shattering events that unfold after one of them convinces the other to allow Carolyn to make the trip.

The performances are supported by a trio of talented musicians: Chris Funke on guitar, Rebecca Kuehl on flute, and AshleƩ Miller, who composed the moody score, on clarinet. The musicians remain onstage and walk among the actors throughout the well-crafted production, directed by Kathy Gail MacGowan. Kentucky Cantata is a masterful work that is likely to stay with you for a long time after the final bows.

Kentucky Cantata
Through February 8
HERE,145 6th Avenue - Enter on Dominick St., One block south of Spring St.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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