Theatre Review: Coop (Paradise Factory, New York) ★★★★

Developed as a part of Pipeline Theatre Company’s PlayLab, non-binary writer and director Sam Max’s darkly comic Coop opens Off-Off-Broadway tonight at Paradise Factory in the East Village. Produced by a queer and femme led creative team, the play stars Latinx, transmasculine actor Lio Mehiel as Avery, a girl who has been isolated from the world and kept in a rigidly routine farm life by her parents (Elizabeth Kenny, Don Meehan). While she spends her days labouring on the farm, listening out for the bell that signals family mealtimes (largely consisting of eggs), Avery’s nights are spent on the porch conversing with her dead uncle (Sam BreslinWright). During their nocturnal conversations the two piece together fragments of memories about their pasts including a sexual encounter between Uncle and a woman from town (Briana Archer). A crack in the fence brings disruption to life on the farm in the form of a moonshine delivery boy (Mateo Correa) whom Avery pays to injure her parents.

Briana Archer and Lio Mehiel in Sam Max’s Coop

All the action occurs on the farm, but the time period and geographical setting remain unspecified, contributing to the feeling that this could be any time, any place and, as the play progresses, that perhaps we are more inside Avery’s mind than in any fixed physical location. Hints of time and place come in details such as the large plastic cup with a red straw that Sheila carries with her, and at one point there’s a discman on stage which provides a blissful, overwhelming moment for Avery, who’s likely hearing music for the very first time, not counting her mother’s humming.

With an intriguing but uncomplicated narrative at its centre, it’s the expressionistic form and structure which drive the momentum of the play and make it so compelling. As Avery’s days bleed into one another, we see the same scenarios repeated with subtle, sometimes chilling, sometimes darkly humorous differences that have a flavour of Beckett’s absurdism. Max’s focused, well choreographed direction with its repetition of movement adds to the sense of Avery, and us as audience members, being trapped in a recurring nightmare. Max’s confident commitment to experimentation with theatrical form make for an exciting evening.

There’s a fitting sparsity to Edina Stoykova’s oppressive farm set, as well Michael Costagliola’s nearly continuous, often unsettling sound design, and Krista Smith’s ominous lighting; the effect of car headlights running across the stage (which Avery delights in) is particularly well conceived .

The entire cast impresses, with the core of Lio Mehiel as Avery, Elizabeth Kenny as Mother and Don Meehan as Father entirely committed to their roles, delivering vibrant, nuanced performances that manage to embrace the stylised demands of the play without sacrificing any emotional truth.

Although Coop is not explicitly queer, Avery’s sense of isolation, and her distress at being trapped by the expectation of her role on the farm, as she struggles to discover herself will be familiar to many of us who identify as LGBTQ+. Sam Max and their collaborators have created a powerful piece of theatre that sears itself into the mind like a bloodstained fever dream.

By James Kleinmann

Sam Max’s Coop runs at Paradise Factory, 64 E 4th Street, New York, NY 10003 from February 27th until March 14th. Monday – Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 3pm and 8pm. No show March 9th. General Admission: $25. Tickets available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/coop-tickets-88674456687

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