Saturday, March 24, 2018

Outstanding Performance Boosted by Technical Elements in The Other Mozart

In turns amusing and heartbreaking, The Other Mozart—presented by Texas Tech University and The Little Matchstick Factory—refuses to loosen its grasp. Every aspect of the production under the skillful direction of Isaac Byrne—from star Sylvia Milo to production designs from an all-star team of artists—aligns well with each other, providing a beautifully consistent experience.

The Other Mozart tells the true story of Nannerl Mozart, the sister of Amadeus—a prodigy, virtuoso, and composer who performed throughout Europe with her brother to equal acclaim. However, her story has faded away, lost to history. The story unfolds in the form of a one-woman show starring, conceived, and written by Milo.

Milo’s script, in addition to its entertainment value, mirrors our contemporary society in terms of systemic oppression of women. She speaks of her brother in tones both prideful and withdrawn, often deflecting attention away from herself by claiming, “I am only my brother’s pupil.” In her world, a person cannot escape their fate. As her mother says in the play, “God can find any man, and no lightning rod can spare him.” The prison of oppression screams for attention.

Milo provides heart-filled life to Nannerl, even if her dialect makes her difficult to understand at times. Milo has more success when switching to the other characters in her family: Wolfgang, father Leopold, and mother Anna Maria. Each of the family members are given a distinct physical and vocal presence, and Milo moves with agility between them. Characterized by bowed legs and a hunched stance, Anna Maria embodies the oppression of women. Leopold stands tall, his fluid movements denying the opportunity for indifference. Wolfgang exudes a child-like mania, bouncing and squealing even as his character ages into adulthood.

Though Milo captivates, the design team steals the show, especially the costume design by Magdalena Dabrowska and Miodrag Guberinic. The billowing white fabric of the skirt emanates from a cane bustle as if an invisible woman kneels in an eternal state of genuflection. Dotting the cloth are pieces of music, letters, and props. One particularly useful item finds itself used in multiple ways including as a fan, a bow and arrow, and Wolfgang’s phallus on his wedding day. The skirt also serves as the set for the show. In a particularly effective moment, Milo binds the garment to her body as a physical representation of the confines of marriage. As the show comes to an end, the dress engulfs her, and she carries it with her as she walks into infinity. Hair design by Courtney Bednarowski resembles a towering smokestack that would make the Bride of Frankenstein jealous. The visual effect delights, especially in a clever bit of staging when Nannerl rides in a carriage, her hair thrashing wildly. Music by Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen fills the space with youthful melodies on marimba, crystal glasses, and toy pianos in one moment, the next providing a chilling shock with fuller orchestrations that at times overpower the voice of Nannerl until she must scream for attention. The lighting design by Joshua Rose ranges from the pure whites of performance, the sepia tones of nostalgia, the dim flickers of ghostly tones, and the hellish reds of damnation. His work takes what could feel like a limited space and transforms it, making any location in the world accessible.

But society prohibits Nannerl from accessing a life outside of her grasp. In the closing moments, she once again tells us her name before disappearing into the darkness, as if she defies us to forget her story. But how can we?

It is unforgettable.

--Shane Strawbridge

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Hand to God is One Hell of a Mess

            By turns riotously funny and squirmingly uncomfortable, John Cash Carpenter’s production of Robert Askins’s Hand to God provides a scathing critique of organized religion from the lips of a foul-mouthed puppet with never-blinking eyes and a toothy grin. Looking for a coherent plot? Search elsewhere; Tyrone the puppet’s irreverent brand of commentary remains the main attraction.
            In a church basement plastered with colorful posters (scenic design by Brandi Hargrove and director Josh Cash Carpenter), Margery leads a puppet club with teenagers Jessica, Timmy, and her son Jason. Jason’s father has recently passed, and Margery uses the puppet club to distract herself from her grief. What begins innocently enough takes a hard-left turn into something more sinister as Jason discovers that his puppet Tyrone may be possessed not only by his own talent and joy but also Satan himself. More a series of sketches than a cohesive narrative, Hand to God unravels and goes off the rails as Tyrone gains more and more power and the danger rises.
            The peril comes not only in the form of the satanic puppet, but also through the sexual harassment endured by the women in the show. Thoughts of the #metoo movement can’t help but float to the surface over the course of the evening as time and again men stroke, come on to and grope the women. Even after these sexual advances, the women are forced embody the role of the comforter for the men leaning on the crutch of “nice guy syndrome” who use and abuse them all night. Instead of grasping the opportunity for social commentary and providing a call to action, Askins reduces the female plight to a series of jokes. Ignoring the complicit behavior appears impossible, but Askins and Carpenter succeed anyway. Casual misogyny runs amok from Askins’s plot to Hargrove and Carpenter’s costume design which reinforces gender norms in their use of stereotypical color palettes.
            Clad in reds and blues which appear to relate to his character’s teen fan-boy stereotype, Nicholas Vitela leads the cast in a charged performance, switching deftly between the roles of Jason and Tyrone. Vitela’s absence in select scenes triggers the counting of seconds until his return. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast does not match his level. Jose Moreno as Timmy has memorable moments such as a particularly manic tear in the basement, but more often than not he pushes one step too far. Casey Radle’s Margery leans more toward stylized over-acting than realistic existence. Tatyana Ramirez exudes a youthful innocence in her portrayal as Jason’s love interest, Jessica, but Carpenter does not fully utilize her talents. Jabe Reynolds’s Pastor Gregg, clad in 50 shades of drab, oozes slime from the start. What could have been performed as subtle becomes awkward, overt, and predatory to the detriment of the production.
            The set design by Carpenter and Hargrove portrays multiple locations due to its ability to fold inward, creating spaces for Jason’s bedroom and Pastor Gregg’s office. A particularly clever piece of design was incorporated in the form of two headlights and a Chevy pickup truck grill bearing the license plates “Drivin’ for Jesus”. Despite the strengths of the set design, scene transitions lasted long enough to kill any momentum the show had built up. The technical elements may soar to the heavens, but the execution drags them right back down to hell.
            Director Carpenter certainly mounts a production filled with good intentions (and we all know where the latter are said to lead). What ultimately overcomes the missteps in this Hand to God is Vitela’s performance; he puts on a hell of a show.

---Shane Strawbridge

A Problem of Representation: KCACTF Region 6

            Over the course of the last year, the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements have found themselves imprinted onto the public consciousness. In the past, theatre artists marched out in front of issues like these through provocative new works, and performances. Today, however, many theatres settle for tried, true, and safe expressions in art, recycling the old war-horses instead of confronting systems of oppression and advocating for change. Other branches of the arts are fighting for improvements in equality and representation, but where can we find the theatre? The Region 6 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival indicates that theatre has a lot of catching up to do.
            Of the seven invited productions at this year’s festival, only one of them—Luna Gale—was penned by a female playwright (Rebecca Gilman). Nationally, productions of plays written by women make up a paltry 22% of theatre offerings. Region 6 of the Kennedy Center suffers an additional 7% drop in this representation. The argument has been made that men write better and more plays, and therefore of course producers select their work more often. That statement doesn’t stand up to the facts. In the National Playwriting Program’s 10-Minute Play Competition, blind submissions are evaluated to choose the regional finalists. Of the six plays selected, five of them were written by women. If 83% of plays by female playwrights are selected on blind submission, how do we explain such a precipitous drop once identities are revealed?
            The problem goes beyond the playwrights. Male directors outnumber female directors 4 to 3. On the surface it appears that female actors outnumber male actors at KCACTF, but much of that depends on the monologue play Shakespeare’s Other Women. Without that play, men would outnumber the women 16 to 11. Are female theatre artists absent? A quick glance at any common area during the festival proves that women outnumber the men, yet the symptom persists. We must correct this disparity between available resources and representation.
            When female characters are represented in these plays, they are often subject to misogynistic tropes at the hands of the playwrights and creative teams. Robert Askins’s Hand to God makes no attempt to create female characters that have agency as anything other than a sexual object. When protagonist Jason’s mother does show a sense of being in control of the situation, she does so by committing statutory rape. Jason’s love interest Jessica almost maintains her innocence throughout the play before succumbing to sexual deviancy in the way of explicit puppet sex. She must use sex as a tool to stop the evil since a woman couldn’t possibly have any other skills available. These women are not characters so much as props designed for men’s pleasure.
            Lydia by Octavo Solis, for all its beauty, reduces the women of the play to sexual objects, jilted lovers, or helpless creatures that cannot care for themselves. The Royale by Marco Ramirez only includes one woman in the story of the play. Once introduced late in the evening she serves mostly as a sounding board. Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph levels the playing field in terms of representation as it features one male and one female character, but Kayleen serves little purpose outside of being a comforter for Y-chromasomed Doug. He calls on her to heal him physically, emotionally, and mentally throughout the play to the detriment of her own health. In the one moment of the play that she seems to really need him, he attacks her saying, “Make me stay;” The onus moves to her. Even in her vulnerable moments, the script requires she serve as caretaker to a man. The festival includes Gilman as the one female playwright in the mix, and even she finds herself guilty of the negative portrayals of women that pervade the festival. Luna Gale, though full of strong female characters, focuses a bit too much on the ways that some women tear each other down to achieve their goals.
            When the issue of representation comes up at KCACTF6, theatre professionals trumpet the aforementioned play Shakespeare’s Other Women. On the surface, a play directed by a woman featuring 12 women playing 36 female roles deserves credit as a triumph, right? Not so fast. Although the play appears to bridge the divide, the production proves quite problematic. In the casting of the show, stereotypes are invoked across the board. More attractive women play queens and love interests while other body types play clowns, jilted lovers, and servants. Furthermore, the characters are only allowed to speak when prompted by the two male characters in the play. After these men have listened to these words from female characters that give agency, power, and depth, the papers holding their stories are left strewn about the floor as the men head to the bar to show off the bound copy of Shakespeare’s first folio—a book filled with stereotypical female tropes. The final moment of the play features the women standing alone in the library, no longer able to act or speak without the permission of a man. They remain there, steadfast as the building catches fire. With these closing acts, the play appears to suggest that women stepping out of line leads to being burned alive: hardly a positive message for women.
            Given all of these problems, how do we correct this imbalance? Do we simply instruct responders to balance representation when inviting productions to participate in the festival? Perhaps, but with the 78/22% disparity between productions of male and female playwrights, can we level the playing field? If the solution does not exist at the regional level, where else should we look? The answer lies elsewhere on the totem pole: the students. Educational institutions must make a more concerted effort to include students at the molecular level. Get a balanced representation of artists involved in season selection, dramaturgical presentations, direction, playwriting. We may bemoan that the region should do a better job in selecting works by female artists featuring female characters, but if schools aren’t producing those works, how can Region 6 possibly extend an invitation to the festival?
            But can we count on young theatre artists? Can they really enact real change? To answer that question, I point your attention to the national debate on gun control, especially as related to school shootings. Politicians have been running circles around each other for years on this issue. A tragedy happens, words are thrown about, but no real change happens. Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the students took control of the narrative. They were able to force face-to-face meetings with Senators, law enforcement, and the NRA while getting their message out to major media outlets across the country. In the wake of their efforts, almost ten gun-control bills have been filed in the Senate. They did all of this in little over a week. If a group of students can have this kind of effect on a national issue of such importance, they certainly can when it comes to the problem at hand. These are powerful, driven individuals ready to make a change. We must trust them to shape the future not only of KCACTF, but of American Theatre as a whole.
---Shane Strawbridge

Interview: Q & A with Lauren Ferebee

Award-winning playwright Lauren Ferebee creates playful and meaningful theatrical experiences, from classical theatre in bars, houses, and parks to traditional stage plays, engaging audiences in creative experiences that empower, include, and connect. Of the six regional finalist plays for the National Playwriting Program at the Region 6 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Ferebee authored two of them, with one of them advancing as a National Finalist. Shane Strawbridge had the pleasure of sitting down with her to pick her brain about her work, her experiences, and her influences.

Who are you and what is your background?

I'm a playwright currently in my first year of the MFA program at Texas State. I did my undergrad in drama at NYU/Tisch and have worked as a theatremaker for the last nine years or so in many capacities and in many places, including South Carolina, New York, and Texas.

What challenges do you find in crafting a ten-minute play as opposed to a one act or full-length play?

In ten-minute plays, the "why this moment" question really becomes paramount. I find the key to a ten-minute is looking at what you're interested in character or issue-wise, and then looking at it from every possible angle to find that perfect ten minutes to show onstage. Also, I don't like that ten-minutes are often considered "fluff" or "throwaway," because ten minutes is plenty of time to tell a story. It can be funny and sharp, but it can still be a story with heart and meaning.

What is your writing process?

I always write in the morning. I write pages almost every day. I often revise before I finish a draft. I have lots of post-it notes with little things that should happen and lots of notes on my iPhone.

What sort of stories fuel your writer fire?

It changes over time, but I almost always write workplace plays. I'm very interested in the effects of late-stage capitalism on people's existential sense of themselves. I’m also particularly interested in how the economic and cultural climate of the U.S. affects women's lives, and how women (both successfully and unsuccessfully) claim space, agency, and leadership in the world. Also, I write because once upon a time I was a 20-year-old who hated every "hot chick" or "secretary" role that I went out for (and also pretty much all the Neil Labute and David Mamet the world was interested in). The knowledge that voicing women's reality is an act of staking out territory and reclaiming lost or misrepresented identities keeps my fire burning.

If you could go back and steal one play from the past to claim as your own, what you choose and why?

Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom because it is a successful feminist play about the Salem Witch Trials that follows Brechtian tradition, both in its music and its historical distancing. It is a great example of Marxist feminist theatre. Since a lot of my work deals with the impact of late-stage capitalism, I deeply relate to Vinegar Tom as a part of my own playwriting tradition. I also have a fondness for successful plays with music and plays about witches, both of which I think are important to understanding the history of women in the world.

---Shane Strawbridge