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In 1587, a small English colony of about 115 men, women, and children was established on Roanoke Island. Three years later, the settlement was gone; the only evidence Europeans had ever been there was the word “Croatoan” carved into a wooden post. Axis Company artistic director Randy Sharp uses the mysterious tale of the Lost Colony of Roanoke as inspiration for her dark, flummoxing new play, Strangers in the World, which opened last night at the company’s home on Sheridan Square, inaugurating Axis’s twentieth anniversary season. The play is set in 1623, but many of the Lost Colony elements are there as a group of starving, traumatized Puritans wander almost zombielike through scary woods of barren trees. The addled survivors consist of their selectman, Killsin Henry (Brian Barnhart), who mutters on about his murdered son and dead wife, Jane (Britt Genelin); William Chase (Andrew Dawson), the old teacher; John Coldweather (Jon McCormick), whose wife died on the ship, followed by their twin daughters; Distance (Spencer Aste), Killsin’s brother who is married to Honor (Katie Rose Summerfield); and Constance (Emily Kratter), the youngest, who arrived later on a ship bringing more Puritans and desperately needed supplies.
On a cold day, an odd young man is spotted in the woods. Olean (Phil Gillen) explains his cutter sank on a fishing expedition from its larger vessel, a big ship that should return shortly to give them all salvation. But the marooned castaways suspect he’s a thief come to rob and murder them or else in cahoots with the “savages” they claim have already stolen from them, leaving them with nothing but the ragged clothes on their backs and a few dozen apples. Filled with fear, the Puritans consider locking Olean in a makeshift cage that sports a sign that reads “The Wayward Child” and, curiously, a surreal picture of an eye. There are several clues as to who Olean might be, which lead only to more confusion as the crisis grows ever more discombobulated.
In Strangers in the World, writer-director Sharp (Last Man Club, Dead End, High Noon) has created a Beckett-like story of the settling of America, except in this case Godot may have shown up in the personage of Olean — although the characters don’t realize it. The seventy-five-minute show explores ideas of humanity’s puritanical nature, with numerous references to sin and salvation (such as their names themselves, which include Killsin and Honor); sex and childbirth loom large, as does child murder; they also debate whether Olean might be a Jonah come to reprimand them, not free them. But foraging for meaning in the play is like getting lost in the woods: Is it a parable about the Garden of Eden gone terribly wrong? (Olean begs for water but William only offers him a half-eaten apple.) The return of Jesus? Is it about the dangers of fundamentalist religious beliefs, then and now? Fear of the other, relating to the current battle over immigration? (At one point, they discuss a “godless southern city . . . with a wall round it.”) Or perhaps it’s a stark look at the future of the planet because of climate change? As with all Axis productions, Strangers in the World is technically adept, with solid acting, a compelling set (by Chad Yarborough), fab costumes (by Karl Ruckdeschel), and an appropriately creepy sound design (by Paul Carbonara). But the narrative is as cold and distant as the hellish land where the Puritans have been apparently sentenced to spend eternity. Over the last few years, archaeologists think they may have found what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke; maybe next they can turn their attention to the overly puzzling Strangers in the World.