From the moment you walk into the Richard Christiansen Theatre, you are absolutely immersed in Sydney Lynne’s stunning deep-in-the-forest set. With its trees and bowers of leaves and flowers, it seems to be the kind of place where magic can happen. And in travis tate’s Queen of the Night, directed by Ken-Matt Martin, a kind of magic does indeed happen that leaves the two characters permanently changed.
Terry Guest is Ty, a young gay Black man who has agreed, on the eve of his mother’s remarriage, to go camping in the woods with his father, Stephen (André Teamer). The father hopes to find a way to bond with his younger son, who comes hoping to be able to get off his chest the pain he has carried all his life because his father has never seen him as a real man. Stephen instead has fostered his relationship with an older brother, never seen in the play, who is closer to the ideal he dreamed of when his sons were born.
tate (all small letters) puts these men here to find a way through the layers of crap that we all deal with regarding family. In a director’s note, Martin says that no one can love or protect you like family, but no one can hurt you or get under your skin like them either. It’s clear that both writer and director are aiming this play directly at anyone who has experienced this dichotomy; in other words, it’s a play for everyone. tate’s characters have been to these woods before: Stephen comes frequently, while Ty retains (bad) memories from trips as a child. His brother, who, we are told, Dad dotes on, hates the place and refused to make the trip. This immersion in the wilderness is all about Stephen and Ty.
tate is not particularly subtle about using the woods as a metaphor for how deeply lost and disconnected these two have become as well as for the monsters that haunt their relationship. There is an actual bear stalking them as Ty struggles with the beast his mind has created from the ways he feels Stephen has always slighted him. There are also, however, fireflies to use in lighting the way toward understanding each other and flowers to provide a glimpse of a better future.
This is a sweet and genial play, though it’s not particularly deep or profound. It’s the kind of play in which a father and son will stand at a fishing hole for an entire scene not looking at each other while each struggles to find a way to be honest. And, at least as Martin has directed it, it’s the kind of play where characters are better able to unburden themselves after the other has turned in for the night, talking through a nylon tent or to a prone body in a sleeping bag.
Throughout the play, Martin’s actors circle around their relationship like the bear hanging out on the periphery of their campsite. Some kind of revelation is coming, and both Guest and Teamer smartly underplay their broken relationship until it can arrive. When it gets there, both the men and the audience are fully prepared, ready to bang pots and spray mace if that is what is needed, even though we feel all the time that there is less danger than there appears. When each man finally has his say, it feels like the sun at dawn breaking the hold of the darkness that has long threatened them both.
One aspect of this production that I take exception with is the lighting, which is over-thought and over-designed by Sim Carpenter and Connor Sale. While mostly very effective in creating mood and focus, it fails in a few very noticeable key moments. One of the first things I first saw when I arrived was that, among the lovely shadows in the preset, there was one random tree lit (for some reason) with red light that faded in and out. Later, a few fireflies become an entire plague of the creatures descending on the campsite…before they inexplicably turn all of the colors of a Christmas tree. There is also a moment in which powerful lights are shined directly at the audience in an admittedly lovely effect that nonetheless is blinding. Despite the overall quality of the lighting, things like this pull an audience right out of the play.
If you overlook this, and if you don’t expect monumental profundity, there is a lot to like in this play. tate’s script has some fine humorous touches that allow us to sense the family history as well as solid opportunities for both actors to shine. The set is almost immersive—you practically feel as if you are in the forest with them—and really beautiful. Martin’s direction feels natural and believable as he shows us both the relationship that has been and the one that might have been. And tate’s script has real heart in it.
Queen of the Night is 85 minutes long and will play through March 13. Tickets are available on the Victory Gardens website.