Read an Employee of the Year Review in the New York Times Apr 20, 2016

by Erin

The New York Times' Charles Isherwood reviews Employee of the Year:

“I’m 45.”

“I’m 54.”

“I’m 62 now.”

“I’m 71.”

The years of a woman’s life flit by like leaves blown in a stiff breeze in “Employee of the Year,” an original and affecting theater work from the inventive company 600 Highwaymen that has made its New York premiere as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, at Gould Hall. (The two-performance run ended on Thursday night.) What’s most striking about this simple but fresh-feeling piece is less the content than the form in which it is presented, or rather the performers who present it. Although the narrator describes her life from the age of 3 to the age of 80, all five of the actors who tell her story are 9 and 10.

The fragmentary first-person narrative, written by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, who also directed the production, begins with the protagonist’s earliest memories: of standing in her yard at 3 and suddenly yearning for her mother, and, later, of playing with her mother, at 7, in the park.

“She is throwing this kite in the air, and we are running and laughing so much that I tumble into the grass,” says Rachel Dostal, who narrates the early section of the story with a clear, almost affectless delivery that will be matched by all the accomplished performers.

Ten years pass suddenly — while telling us the story, the performers move pointedly around the large white square of carpet that is the set — and J., as the narrator calls herself, is 17 and going out on a date. But an innocent night out ends in tragedy, when J. returns home to find that her house has burned down, and her mother has died in the fire. More disorienting still, when Rick and Donna, friends of her mother’s, come to take J. to live with them, she learns that in fact she was adopted.

They are silent when she asks who her real mother was. “Donna and Rick are telling me they believe in honesty, but they say nothing else,” J. says. At her new house, she notices a photo of a girl who looks just like her. On the back are the words: “Lynn’s house, Boulder, Colo.” Later she overhears Donna telling Rick, “We made a promise, we’re not shipping her off to Lynn.”

J. stealthily packs her bag that very night, steals a fistful of cash from Donna’s purse and sets out to find this mysterious Lynn, who, she is convinced in the turbulence of her broken 17-year-old heart, must be her mother. The story takes several more surprising turns, as it is passed from Ms. Dostal to the other narrators: Stella Lapidus, Alice Chastain Levy, Violet Newman and Candela Cubria.

The switching of the narrators, which happens suddenly, at random points in the story, underscores the emotional keynote of “Employee of the Year.” While J. keeps changing and growing, eventually acquiring a boyfriend and a job, and bearing her own child, she nevertheless somehow remains trapped in her girlhood, yearning obsessively for the return of her lost mother.

It’s as if by tracking down her birth mother, she can somehow resurrect her real mother and rewrite her life story, erasing the tragedy of her youth.

As they narrate the story of J.'s lifelong — quite literally — search, the performers move around the stage and strike simple poses, stretching a single arm out to the side, lying on the ground, or occasionally grouping together and running back and forth, in fits of giggles. (Similar movement was the focus of the company’s wonderful wordless show,“The Record,” seen at Under the Radar in January.)

These minimalist, dancelike moves infuse the piece with an odd, frolicsome energy that keeps it from growing too static. So do the songs peppering the narrative, sung a cappella. Composed by David Cale, the noted solo performer and composer (“Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky,” “A Likely Story”), they are touching and often funny, simply composed, and woven deftly into the narrative.

Only in the last section does “Employee of the Year” break through its intentionally distancing, deadpan style. Ms. Cubria, the final narrator, steps outside the story and introduces herself by name, and then sings a touching, mournful song, “Will I Remember?,” which ruminates on the way memory rearranges and reorders experience, keeping things we’d think we’d like to throw away, losing passages that seemed to mean so much at the time.

“Life is a mystery,” Ms. Cubria sings. “I guess Madonna was right.”

Read the review online at The New York Times.