For many Americans, Niagara Falls exists only in imagination or memory. It’s nearly effortless to conjure up images of the towering, majestic falls and the great rush of water, images often inspired by picture-perfect postcards or by distant recollections of a long-ago honeymoon.
But for residents of Niagara Falls, New York, the reality is much bleaker. Despite the famous falls, Niagara Falls is a Rust Belt town that has been on the decline since the 1960s. It’s the sight of dangerous toxic waste dumps, and it’s one of the country’s top destinations for suicides, right up there with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
“Niagara Falls,” a new play by Justin Maxwell, running through Feb. 5 (with additional dates to be announced) at The Theatre at St. Claude, blends fantasy and fact in an effort to capture the dark, dying essence of a once-great piece of American real estate.
The plot of “Niagara Falls” is pretty straightforward: When a land developer (Matthew Mickal) approaches the city’s mayor with a plan to convert Niagara Falls’ convention center into a Native American casino, the corrupt, philandering mayor (Jim Fitzmorris) is quick to make a handshake deal in exchange for a small wad of cash.
“Niagara Falls” has a traditional narrative arc, but the production is much more interested in using spectacle and style as storytelling elements.
Directed by Logan Faust (Fitzmorris was slated to direct but gets a producer credit instead), the play is composed of numerous short scenes, some of which are relatively conventional, while others wallow in offbeat humor and strangeness.
A sense of magical realism sneaks in with the addition of a Revolutionary War-era drummer boy from the British Army (Kyle Woods), who emerges soaking wet from the falls to repeatedly harangue the land developer, the mayor and the mayor’s mistress (Bunny Love), with questions about the “bodies in the whirlpool.”
The resulting oddness makes “Niagara Falls” seem more like “Twin Peaks,” giving Maxwell the opportunity to shoehorn facts and figures into the dialogue, referencing historical events and census data on the town’s transition from a natural paradise to an industrial powerhouse to the present landscape of abandoned houses and boarded-up strip malls.
The story itself is thin, but what it stands for is bigger, establishing Niagara Falls as a place being bled dry by those more concerned with lining their pockets than reviving the local economy and the people who rely on it for survival.
Even though the script never really drills deep into plot or character development, the theme and the atmosphere of the production, along with a cast of strong performers, are enough to carry the play — so long as audiences are comfortable with the unconventional style.
The short scenes keep the 60-minute run time tight, and the show is bolstered by an efficient, economical set design by David Raphel and a prominently featured cacophonous sound design by Clare Marie Nemanich.
There’s probably a history lesson at the bottom of “Niagara Falls” and maybe even a cautionary tale about trusting those in power to put civic interests ahead of their own, but ultimately, the play is about the heartbreak of people left high and dry, stranded in their own hometown.
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.,
WHEN: Jan. 26-Feb. 5
INFO: (504) 638-6326 or thetheatreatstclaude.com