NEW YORK, September 28, 2011—Since the massive success of British theater troupe PunchDrunk’s “Sleep No More”—a meandering mash-up of “Macbeth” and ‘30s film-noir—immersive theater has taken New York City by storm. With audience members set loose in a space, free to roam and interact with the actors at will, it makes sense that someone would think to adapt this theater form to a show about running.
Melanie Jones, a Canadian playwright, actress and dancer, has done just that. Freed from the confines of a traditional theater, “Endure: A Run Woman Show” poses the question, “What if the race of your life is your life?” Well then, you better wear your running shoes.
“Endure” uses Brooklyn’s Prospect Park as the backdrop for a physical and metaphysical exploration of what it means to be a runner. Jones, who both wrote the piece and performs it as a one, or run, woman show, uses the marathon as a metaphor for life, inspired by her first marathon experience. In many ways, “Endure” is about why we run and how we keep ourselves going. But it is so much more than that. The character, who is never named, uses running to pick up the pieces of her broken life. It’s running as therapy, capturing both the peaceful and obsessive-compulsive nature of the sport.
Unlike “Sleep No More,” “Endue” is anything but site specific. Coming off of a sold-out run in Canada, “Endure” adapts itself easily to a new location because of the nature of the sport it encapsulates; runners can take their sneakers anywhere. “Endure” is much the same way. You could just as easily imagine it in a rural setting as a city one.
Audience members wear race bibs and, lead by a member of the “Endure” staff, listen to the play’s audio via a pre-programmed iPod. The play’s soundtrack, a subdued collection of songs written and performed by Scandinavian singer-songwriter Christine Owman underscores the play’s script: a runner’s inner monologue set to motion. The monologue exposes the thousands of thoughts that rush through a runner’s head as she trains for and runs 26.2 miles. We listen to Jones’s soft voice as we watch her dance, run and leap through space and time.
The experience begins with a one-mile walk to Prospect Park. It was the only part of the show I found lacking. I understand the effect Jones was trying to achieve—mimicking a runner’s warm-up—but I found myself a bit bored strolling down city streets for 20 minutes while listening to music that was almost antithetical in tone and pace to the theme of the show: the race of life. Not that I’d rather hear a thumping soundtrack of running-paced beats, but for a show so proactively full of verve I found the music a little too mellow, even if it was enjoyable. Much like a runner who hates warm-ups, I was anxious for the race to start.
When we finally see Jones stretching just inside the park, almost as if in a tableau, we hear her voice in our ears teasing us for thinking the walk was long. It’s as if she’s read our minds. In a blink, she breaks off into a sprint, and off we go, chasing after her. It’s not at all unlike Alice following the white rabbit down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Before we know it, we are fully immersed in the narrator’s world.
Jones is a compelling actor; she’s immensely watchable, and I believe every word she says and every motion she executes. As audience members, we’re not really sure where the author ends and the character begins. There is fluidity between the two, which creates an intimate effect for the audience. Jones gives a fully realized performance that is in some ways better than the material itself.
Which makes me wonder: how do you design a running show for everyone, non-runners included? Jones tackles the conundrum well by never running too far or too fast, or quite literally running circles around the audience. Even walkers can follow along. But because of these constraints, the concept is sometimes better than the execution. I found myself wishing there were more running, more actors, more something for Jones to interact with.
Because, in the end, Jones is at her best when she’s engaging with her audience—taunting me as a stand-in for her running nemesis, begging another man for help with an outstretched arm, looking us dead in the eye as she challenges us to follow her. Using a blend of contemporary dance, pantomime and sheer athletic drive, Jones infuses the play with both a child-like joie de vivre and disillusioned wisdom.
Jones has worked as a writer, performer and producer for print, television and theater. Her work in each medium shows. “Endure” is a performance piece that is cinematic, visceral and internal at the same time. And as an accomplished athlete, Jones has qualified for the Boston Marathon, earned a second place overall female finish in a half-Ironman, and notched an Ironman finish of 12:00:48. Watching her alter ego go through the rites of her first marathon, I found myself cheering for her, wanting her to succeed.
So I found the ending a minor disappointment. (SPOILER ALERT) After following the character through her training and the race itself, I wanted to see her cross the finish line. Instead, we watch a rather beautiful moving image of Jones, with her curly brown hair flowing behind her, running off into the distance. No doubt, it was a breathtaking moment. But after watching this character train, achieve the mystical runner’s high, hit the dreaded wall, have sex, contemplate suicide and question every major decision in her life, I wanted to watch her succeed too. I wanted to see her finish the race in victory, her arms raised above her head, not just hear about it in the monologue. (END SPOILER ALERT)
Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed “Endure.” For anyone who has run a marathon or loved a marathoner, “Endure” rings true to the experience of being a runner in all its glory and all its pain.
“Endure: A Run Woman Show” is playing now through Oct. 23. The show begins at Brooklyn’s Old Stone House in Park Slope and finishes in Prospect Park with a runtime of approximately 75 minutes. Shows run every Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online at RunWomanShow.com.
Karla Bruning is an award-winning journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.
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