Flux ensemble examines friendship, loss

Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum In “Sans Merci,” Kelly mourns the death of her college girlfriend.
Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum
In “Sans Merci,” Kelly mourns the death of her college girlfriend.

Two plays, in rep, give voice to grief

infoBY MAEVE GATELY | An ensemble-driven company dedicated to the belief that “long-term collaboration and rigorous creative development can unite artists and audiences,” Flux Theatre Ensemble has presented 14 productions since its 2006 debut. During that time, it has received recognition from the NYC Fringe Festival and the NY Innovative Theater Awards, and was a 2011 Caffé Cino Fellowship Award winner, for “consistently producing outstanding work.”

This spring, Flux is presenting two plays in rep: August Schulenburg’s “Honey Fist” and Johnna Adams’ “Sans Merci.” Absurdity, dark comedy and a quiet desperation pervade these two works, each of which deal with friendship, loss and the redemptive power of remembrance in their own unique ways.

“Honey Fist” follows a group of high school friends who gather once a year to drink, smoke weed and reminisce about Justin — a former member of the group who died in an incident no one cares to recall. When old high school rival turned Hollywood producer Joe shows up with his movie star girlfriend, what begins as a drunken commemoration evolves into an ill-conceived kidnapping that unearths a decades-old secret.

In “Sans Merci,” social activist Kelly receives a visit from the mother of her college sweetheart, Tracy, several years after her death. As the two debate and dance around the story of Tracy and Kelly’s romance (Elizabeth, Tracy’s conservative mother, is hesitant to believe her daughter was gay), flashbacks to Kelly’s college days show the two falling in love and deciding to go to Colombia on an advocacy mission. The final revelation of what that mission became, and the circumstances surrounding Tracy’s terrible end, brings the Kelly and Elizabeth together in their shared grief — forcing the audience to question how, in the face of such horror, we carry on.

In describing how the ensemble chose these two works, “Honey Fist” playwright and Flux creative director August Schulenburg emphasized that, “The process by which we make the work is almost as important as the work itself. And this voting process is really the heart of it.”

Before agreeing to produce a play, the ensemble meets over several months in an intense, collaborative process during which members present the plays and debate which ones should be selected. This process takes into account whether the plays fit into Flux’s aesthetic, if there are roles that fit the members of the core ensemble and whether Flux has previously produced the playwright’s work.

Schulenburg’s plays have been produced by the group before, but putting on a work of Johnna Adams has, he says, always been a dream of his. Both have written roles for one another, and Schulenburg cites her influence in a great deal of his work (though not “Honey Fist”). He recalled how the ensemble was “outraged” that “Sans Merci” had not been produced in New York before, noting that, despite the limitations of this particular play (there are not enough women in the core ensemble to play the roles in this female-only work), Flux eventually chose to put it on.

Speaking about the content of the plays themselves, Schulenberg observed how they have a very different sound to them. “Honey Fist” is “a very rowdy play. There is a lot of singing and fighting and drinking and pot-smoking,” whereas “Sans Merci,” by contrast, “operates on a very tight bandwidth, almost a hush.” One ends on a more cathartic note, while the other lacks that sentimental sense of closure. “Sans Merci” has a “circular, almost claustrophobic feel,” while “Honey Fist” has an expansive, breaking-out feel.”

Audiences will notice a very female flavor to “Sans Merci,” which does not have a single male actor on stage, and, by contrast, a very “stereotypically male” charge to “Honey Fist.” Schulenburg asserts that the two plays are about “who owns the stories of the dead,” and admitted that “Honey Fist” was partly inspired by his own experiences. He had a friend named Justin who died in high school, and part of the writing of this play was an effort to give words to an experience for which there were none — to voice, as Schulenburg described it, “what I would have been able to say to Justin if I had been able to say something.”

Instead, Schulenburg used his vision, and his own experiences, to “write a play reaching towards something I don’t understand, [something] I don’t have words for.” And that sense of wordless fulfillment is ultimately what the audience will walk away with as well.