Within the first minute of Inis Nua’s How to be Brave, we learn several things about Katie (Alice Yorke). She is from Newport. She is a librarian. She is a mother. She loves books. She loves being organized. She doesn’t like saying things out loud.
By the end of the brisk 65-minute one-person show, she has seemingly confronted all of these identities. Faced with a significant life event on the horizon, she snaps. All of a sudden, it seems, order and structure fly out the window as she races through the streets of Newport, Wales on a stolen BMX bike. Katie’s journey isn’t just geographic, though. In a literary nod to Joyce’s Dublin and Proust’s madeleine, the buildings, bridges, and roads she encounters flood her psyche with memories of past incidents, victories, and humiliations.
Nuance, grace, and intimacy
Yorke does a tremendous job carrying the show. Transporting us across time and space, she deftly guides the audience through both the urban geography of Newport and the psychological terrain of her past. She quickly inhabits characters not as fully formed beings but as clear manifestations of her own emotional processing. Her accent work, like all others I have seen at Inis Nua, is top rate (coached by Leonard Kelly).
As the emotional layers of the show build, Yorke (ably interpreting playwright Siân Owen’s dialogue) allows the story to swerve into unexpected places. These tangents don’t distract from the story at hand, but add nuance and grace notes to the steadily building emotional intensity. There are times when Owen’s script veers into the sentimental, but Yorke’s earnest performance and Tom Reing’s steady direction keep things from becoming too saccharine.
This virtual production benefits from the overlapping idiosyncrasies of pre-recorded theater and solo plays. Ensemble dramas can feel overcrowded on a Zoom screen, where the grid can make scenes feel stilted and isolating. And solo dramas can often feel swallowed up within a live venue, leaving me feeling antsy for more action. Here, the two forms work wonderfully together, creating engaging intimacy that locks your focus on Yorke’s storytelling.
Utilizing green screen, Marie Laster’s painterly backdrops provide a distinct sense of place. Early in the show, a few backdrops in rapid succession convey movement; this proves to be less successful than when they are used as static features. Michael Long’s photography and Andrew Cowle’s lighting design work well together. The only physical prop brought onscreen is a bright red BMX bike, a potent symbol of Katie’s distressed need for escape.
I was unprepared for the simplicity of How to be Brave. As worldwide catastrophes layer on top of ingrained historical traumas, I almost forgot a play could be about the lasting sting of a grade-school bully’s teasing. Soon, I look forward to remembering these smaller tragedies and their accompanying triumphs alongside the bigger questions that theater will need to answer.
Image description: Actor Alice Yorke, a white woman in her 30s wearing an orange sweater and jeans, rides a red BMX bike on a grassy outdoor path. Late afternoon light catches her long, curly reddish hair.
What, When, Where
How to Be Brave. By Siân Owen, directed by Tom Reing. Streaming through Saturday, April 24, 2021. Inisnuatheatre.org.