Nilaja Sun’s Pike St is an irrefutable masterclass in acting, but its sheer energy – and the ambition of its storytelling – makes for a slightly muddled and abstruse narrative.
Forget the hurricane on its way to the Lower East Side (well, don’t…it’s an important part of the plot). A different hurricane is already present as soon as you walk into Summerhall’s Roundabout though, in the form of solo performer Nilaja Sun. Over the course of Pike St‘s 75-minute duration, Sun offers nothing short of a real masterclass in acting. Merely watching her physicality shift from elderly father, to back-from-war brother, to disabled daughter Candi and so on is nothing short of staggering – it’s the most accomplished performance of my Fringe so far, and one that puts 99% of other solo Fringe offerings to shame.
I have to admit though: I found myself so captivated in simply how she was able to distort and transfigure her body and voice from one character to the next, that the narrative – a fairly intricate undertaking which requires full attention – quickly became quite difficult to follow. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to reduce what I’m saying down to ‘the acting performance is too good for the show’, but Sun’s performance is so strong that you really want to love everything about the piece. But when you consciously try to look past it, you’re perhaps not left with as much of an impression or take-out as you’d want.
Sun’s also the writer of Pike St, and she certainly takes the audience on a jolty and high-powered rollercoaster ride through the complicated and often tough existences of a bunch of Lower East Side residents. Candi (a crippled teenager who’s a victim of a brain aneurysm and can’t eat, speak or breathe on her own) sits at the centre, and book-ends the narrative. It’s nowhere near as simple as saying the writing isn’t strong – where Sun’s text really shines is in the amusing asides and tangents that both qualify and really enrich everyday conversation – but there’s just so many characters, all with quite sophisticated and three-dimensional issues they are facing, that you cannot begin to just feel a bit overwhelmed by just keeping up with what is happening. Or perhaps that’s just me, and I’m not as switched on as the average Summerhaller.
The solo performance at the heart of this play may paint a really vivid picture of an entire community’s worth of quirky characters, but there’s a relentless energy to it that makes the take-out (and perhaps-too-speedy and fantastical ending) a little murky or muddled. Even though there’s little more onstage than one actress and a chair, it somehow still feels like it could have benefitted from being stripped back a little further.
Still though, if you are in the mood to watch what is surely one of the most accomplished solo performances of the Fringe this year, you could do way WAY worse than check Pike St. I eagerly await Sun’s next show, when I’ll train my brain to expect acting like that – and invest everything I’ve got into keeping up with every twist and turn of the narrative.