Two individuals, a man and a woman, keep running into each other in unexpected places. They dated as young adults, but that was years ago. However, when they do stumble into one another, the connection seems instant. They transform into their past selves and almost immediately are drawn to one another. This seems to occur continuously as the couple is then torn apart by personality clashes, work and war. In any other context, this would be a grand romance story. Adding a grand finale in an airport would make it a rom-com. But “Archipelago” is not that simple.
“Archipelago” is a play by UNC Charlotte theater alum and OBIE Award Winner Caridad Svich. This September, it was used to open UNCC’s theater season, though a majority of the performances were canceled due to Hurricane Florence. Thus, it was only performed on Sept. 12 and Sept. 18. The play and casting were interesting choices for UNC Charlotte, as the work consists of only two performers. Both were UNC Charlotte theater professors, Carlos Alexis Cruz and Kaja Dunn. I appreciated that “Archipelago” was a chance to showcase, challenge and expand their skills and put UNC Charlotte theater faculty in the spotlight in a way they traditionally are not. However, I don’t think it was entirely necessary for the play to be faculty-led. While it is an intricate and complex play to perform, our theater students are capable.
The aforementioned plot of “Archipelago” follows a couple, who goes unnamed until the last section of dialogue, that consistently meet and fall for one another. While the play’s timeline travels in circles, often incorporating flashbacks and reflective monologues, the story of their relationship slowly becomes apparent. They met when they were young (just how young they were is unclear) and became a free-spirited, traveling and homeless couple. However, following a fight at a store, Hannah (Kaja Dunn) leaves. The two later unintentionally meet in Ben’s (Carlos Alexis Cruz) home country, an unspecified war-torn place in the desert where Hannah seeks a sense of purpose and escape from her daily life. After Ben is injured and enters a seemingly-endless coma, Hannah travels back to her home in the city. The two meet twice more before the play ends.
Dunn and Cruz do an excellent job of centering and grounding the play. It is a lengthy work with no intermission, the dialogue is complicated and the plot evokes a wide range of emotions. The two’s chemistry is undeniable and compelling to watch. Dunn and Cruz also complement each other well and bring different talents to the table. While both are great acting work, Dunn seems to take on the emotional heavy lifting. She oftentimes performed whole scenes and monologues on an emotional edge, looking like she could burst into tears at any moment. Meanwhile, Cruz thrives in the physicality of the piece. At one point, the play ceases to use words and instead uses dance, physical staging and choreography on aerial silks to illustrate and tell the story. Cruz’ background in dance and circus arts really shines here and likely influenced the choice to use aerial silks in the first place.
The play evokes an overwhelming sense of loneliness, only underlined by the mostly-empty set design and the muted colors of the costumes. Large screens that could be illuminated, an archway and a table were the only physical set pieces. The screens caused the space to feel smaller and pushed the performance into a more enclosed and intimate setting. When illuminated, they allowed the performers to utilize various shadows to move the story forward. The script itself transcends time and place by giving very little description of where the actions occur and omitting the character’s names until the final scene. “Archipelago” could take place anywhere between any two people. It underscores how truly singular the human existence is, making the argument that we may never be able to truly understand another person.
For example, despite the fact the couple has known one another for a long period of time, both parties express that they don’t feel like they really know the other. Hannah wonders aloud how she never knew where Ben was from. They both question if their “happy” memories of traveling together as young adults were truly moments of genuine happiness or if the two were actually just desperate for connection and escapism.
It begs the question, should these two really be together? Is the tale told in “Archipelago” a grand love story, proving that despite all their struggles and problems, Ben and Hannah’s love (and possibly their fate) means they should be together? The two could be emblematic of a solution to the play’s emptiness. Maybe we are all broken and unable to understand one another, but at least Ben and Hannah are trying to together. Or are the two simply enacting some grand love-story narrative because they are unable to move on and desperate to capture nostalgic memories of their youth? If I had been friends with either of the characters and they’d come to me for relationship advice, I would have told them to stay away from such an unhealthy relationship. However, the play doesn’t answer that question, instead deciding to leave it open to interpretation. This makes the ending of “Archipelago” slightly unsettling. The couple is finally together, but should they be?