The tricky thing about the game Snakes and Ladders — better known as Chutes and Ladders here in the West — is that there are more snakes (vices) that can get in your way than ladders (virtues) that can give you a leg up. So it’s fitting that Inis Nua’s current show, Box Clever, is staged on an enormous version of the game board.
This ancient Indian game has often been used as a tool for morality instruction. It’s also a great metaphor for society: specifically the institutional, political, and social structures that keep marginalized populations — like people of color, people experiencing poverty, women, the LGBTQ community — where they are. For every opportunity that presents itself for betterment, there are enough obstacles in place to make it difficult to actually advance.
Inis Nua’s two-person show, on scenic designer Meghan Jones’s giant Snakes and Ladders board, demonstrates just how hard it can be to move up in a world determined to hold you down.
British flavor, universal relevance
Box Clever centers on Marni (Ruby Wolf), a 20something mother with a history of making bad romantic choices. With no regard for the fourth wall, Marni tells the audience — which flanks the sides of the Snakes and Ladders board — about her three ex-boyfriends who, collectively, got her to where she is today. Though she draws a timeline on the butcher paper hanging behind her (a prop I wish we’d returned to at other points in the play), it’s clear that the reality of these relationships is not so clear-cut. All three of the exes are still in her life in some capacity, and all bring a share of trouble — sometimes dangerously so.
Marni is in a government-run boardinghouse/shelter for women and children escaping abusive situations. Although Marni and her daughter Autumn (Rachel Brodeur, who also plays every other role in the play) have a home of their own, it’s not safe for them to return while her abuser is still there. Knowing his history, Marni is confident he’ll be arrested soon and she’ll be able to return with Autumn to their flat —at least temporarily — and get out of the rat-infested shared living situation she’s found herself in.
The problem is that once Marni’s abuser is arrested, bureaucratic red tape keeps her and Dawn from returning home. Though the systems that keep Marni from leaving the women’s shelter are different from the ones we’re familiar with in the U.S., the infuriating processes preventing her from doing something that could actually improve her life (and her daughter’s life) are all too relevant to American audiences.
Director Tom Reing extracts the best from his small cast to deliver an arresting and important show from Monsay Whitney’s deft script.
Neither Wolf nor Brodeur has an easy job here. As Marni, Wolf is talking — to the audience, to herself, to whichever character Brodeur is playing in that moment — almost nonstop, at times moving frenetically around the stage to depict travel or the passage of time. Kudos to Wolf (an American whose South London accent is spot-on) for not simply collapsing every night at curtain call, especially given the subject matter.
And impressive as Wolf is, Brodeur may be even more so. She takes on at least nine different roles, ranging in age from preschooler to grandmother and in background from South London junkie to overeducated bureaucrat. Brodeur, who like Wolf, is also American, had to take on not just one British accent but an accent and affectation for each of the parts she played. Without the aid of a single costume change, her body, her face, her movements all transform for each character, sometimes in a matter of seconds. As exhausted as Wolf must be from the weight of her onstage responsibilities, it’s a wonder Brodeur manages to get through the show in one piece.
Despite its initial lightness and some funny moments throughout the show, Box Clever deals with some exceptionally heavy topics. Domestic and sexual abuse, drug addiction, suicide: all are discussed, if not outright depicted, in the play — and for good reason. Research has shown a link between poverty and sexual or domestic violence, between poverty and addiction, and between poverty and suicide. The likelihood that a person will be jailed can be linked to how wealthy their parents were and what neighborhood they were raised in. (And when you take race into consideration for any of these subjects, the disparity is even more profound.)
There is nothing fun about watching a play take these topics on. There shouldn’t be. Sure, Box Clever isn’t without its laughs, but to say I enjoyed the play would seem almost exploitative. It’s necessary food for thought for audiences on either side of the pond.
What, When, Where
Box Clever. By Monsay Whitney, Tom Reing directed. Through February 24, 2019, at the Louis Bluver Theater at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.