Solstice Party!, Live Source Theatre Group’s production at A.R.T./New York through November 19 (tickets $20-25), is one of those shows about an ensemble of friends or acquaintances who gather for a particular event, where, by the end of the show, some irreversible transformation has occurred. As a blurb from the program suggests, it is “a deeply fucked up Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This is apt, because the solstice they are celebrating is indeed midsummer, and the action of the play takes place all in the woods, with comedy and romance and, ultimately, mayhem.
We are invited into the play largely through the perspective of Pipi (Phoebe Dunn), a yoga instructor who has freshly begun dating Andrew (Chris Ignacio), a member of this friend group who has been celebrating the solstice for some years now. The two of them have just arrived at the home of Dominique and Jo Ann (Patrick Andrew Jones and Satomi Blair), who absconded to upstate from New York City a while ago and who own the property where they are all gathering and camping for the night.
Things are awkward from the first: it would seem Pipi and Andrew had a fight before the play’s beginning, and Dominique and Jo Ann, while seemingly gracious hosts, quickly reveal themselves to be somewhat less than kind and welcoming. “Please stop talking. I regret sharing this with you,” Jo Ann says to Pipi early on, after giving her the rundown of why she and Dominique have come to live upstate.
Dominique is a bit more charitable of a host; in the previous scene he had given Pipi a similar couple paragraphs about his past with Jo Ann, minus the flippant remark. This is the first of many instances in which one character gives a long monologue to another character or group of them, with little motivation and seemingly just to give us said character’s backstory. The only character who remains cryptic almost to the last is Stan (Michael Vitaly Sazonov), a perhaps-groundskeeper who is prone to saying odd things. A highlight is when he clinks glasses with Pipi, saying, “Here’s to you. May you live all the days of your life,” with a benevolence as though he’s said something more profound than he actually has.
The play is at its best during these odd moments—Jo Ann’s outbursts that she quickly retracts, Dominique’s description of Stan: “He’s like a person in the middle of a thing that he’s going through.” The bits of conversation that don’t quite work suggest a weirder reality lying under the normalcy we see, a reality which seems to bubble more and more to the surface as the day wears on.
In her note, playwright Susan Soon He Stanton says that the core of the play is a fear of failure, a desire to hide from anxieties and cut ties to the larger world. The first half of the play seemed to get at this. Oddly, however, the play was billed as “a Jonestown parable for the Trump era,” and when the play abruptly shifts halfway through we see why—when what had previously been a slightly quirky Judd Apatow comedy suddenly became a macabre and confusing Nick Cage Wickerman-type story.
The last half hour of the play becomes a violent shift from a variety of campfire stories, sad and funny and occasionally disturbing, to swaths of murders that later seem to be reversed, a cult leader who is actually a spirit reincarnated who has the ability to swallow them whole, an ex-girlfriend who is way more malicious than anyone ever thought, and an accidental drowning while perhaps on hallucinogens that the drowner later regrets and decides to stay in the woods forever to atone.
The name of this reincarnated spirit is Bafu—and the “not-ashram” next door with whom they have a produce exchange is revealed to be a cult that worships Bafu. In quite the quick reversal, it is revealed that not only do Jo Ann, Dominique, Trish, and Andrew all believe in Bafu, Bafu actually exists. This was not unbelievable because of the magical elements so much, but because of the complete lack of foreshadowing beforehand, aside from a couple odd lighting shifts and sound effects that occur when Pipi is alone onstage and feeling like something is a bit odd. It seemed like the playwright felt the total realism of the majority of the play insufficient to make it interesting, and so added a burst of fantasy to shake things up. If the play had been such from the beginning, I could have been along for the ride. But in that case I didn’t need half of the long, usually unwarranted monologues that made up the majority of the rest of the play.
The highlight of the show ultimately wound up being the performers. They found a chemistry in the weirdness of the situation and among each other, finding nice timing and ease with the quirkiness of the characters. Sazonov especially seemed to sink his teeth into the challenge of fleshing out Stan as an odd, lonely and yet sympathetic guy.