Wroughtland- Gunnar Montana, 2016 Fringe Festival

Sarah Grimke works in performance of all types in the Philadelphia region. They’ve been on stage, backstage, and in the office for years now.

I went to see Wroughtland VERY EXCITED. The festival is a wonderful but very high anxiety time for me. I’m always working on too many projects at too many levels. Right before the festival, I am always convinced I need to quit working in live performance, and right after I am always sure there is nothing else I could love so much. One of my coping mechanisms is seeing a few things in the festival that people recommend to me and that will inspire wonder. Gunnar Montana’s Wroughtland came heavily recommended and his show from last festival, Purgatory, was one I was incredibly sad to miss. I haven’t heard the end of it from people who saw it. I was determined this year.

At first impressions, I was not let down. Gunnar’s team took a familiar venue, The Latvian Society, and made it mysterious. He had us enter in a somewhat roundabout manner around the back and through the bar and back up the stairs, stairs that were transformed with falling pieces of paper and other items that slowly immersed you in a different world. Eventually, you walked through a backless armoire into the space (this might be my favorite entrance to a show ever). BAM! The entire space had been reinvented. Every inch of wall and ceiling was covered in whimsical furniture or fake flora. Ivy with long shiny thorns protruding from it covered most of the surfaces. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, a decrepit couch sat against the raised stage. I logically knew this, but I still searched the program for a set designer, even though I knew Gunnar was the production designer and choreographer and director. Fairly certain he doesn’t sleep.
I knew that the production was inspired by a twisted take on fairy tales, and it was. The evening progressed as a string of individual dances, some solo, some not. Each individual dance had a vague or very pointed reference to a fairy tale that we know of through Disney. One dance in particular straight-up used a song from a mouse-movie. Others were more costume references or movement references, a couple I was unsure what story they were talking about. The dancing was beautiful. The set surprised me over and over again with inspired choices. Seemingly innocuous set pieces opened up or disappeared or allowed someone to be swallowed up. Props appeared out of nowhere. Giant things came through doors I would have sworn wouldn’t fit them. It was, in fact, magical.
Unfortunately, I increasingly felt the magic wear off as the piece continued. At first it was small things that I noticed. My initial questions were raised about the equality of the characters created in the piece. It was a very VERY sexual piece. I actually quite enjoyed the strip tease performed by Little Red Riding Hood for a Big Bad Wolf statue, but then it seemed to increasingly be that the women were nude or semi-nude, sexual without much depth. The 2 men in the company were sexual as well, but mostly enjoyed a story line and it was ultimately revealed that one of them was the protagonist of the piece, the owner of the book of fairy tales, and the other was his lover. In another piece Gunnar, himself, dresses in drag and reveals himself as the owner of the Cinderella-shoe that the female dancers, dressed as disney-princesses, did not fit into. He performs to Gin Wigmore’s Black Sheep (amazing song choice), while a wall ultimately lifts up to reveal a message that says “Not your fucking princess.” Perhaps it was unconscious, but by saying that the women on stage did not qualify for that message while Gunnar did, was hard to watch. Additionally, there was a very disturbing piece that was in reference to Beauty and the Beast. Beauty cleaned and made dinner for her Beast with the aid of tap-dancing rabbits. Beast became increasingly abusive throughout the piece. More than once it seemed as if Beauty would leave, but she could not bring herself to do so. The violence escalated and escalated and ultimately, resulted in her being stripped in front of the audience while she stared mournfully out. The last image of her that you received was very clearly a foreshadowing of the rape that was about to happen. Then BOOP- Back to happy fun time dancing. I thought maybe I was the only one who spent the rest of the piece with my heart pounding and eyeing the exits, wondering how I was supposed to keep sitting in that room enjoying a piece of art. So, Kudos I guess, to Gunnar and his company for making something so believable and present that I almost threw up in my chair. At this point I reiterate: Please don’t casually drop in domestic violence and rape as entertainment. If you put those images out there as a form of entertainment without any context or purpose around it, you are devaluing the experiences of survivors in the room and normalizing the behavior. You are taking an experience that statistically speaking multiple women in your audience have lived through and relegating it to just as entertaining as tap dancing rabbits. Was the purpose to show that happily ever after isn’t so happy? We know. Was it to bring attention to the horrendous culture of domestic violence and rape in our culture? Show me how.
I even gaslit myself into thinking it was maybe just my experience, but I asked around to those I knew who saw it, and it seemed to be a common, though definitely not universal, feeling. Ultimately, it just seemed thoughtless of the creators to throw in such a heavy concept and not follow through with it.
This piece also perpetuated one particular kind of beauty, both male and female. All white. I would ask Gunnar in the future to use his  brilliant aesthetic eye to expand his company’s definition of beauty to include people of color. Especially, in a piece about fractured fairy tales. I felt that was a missed opportunity to right a wrong our society and the mouse have perpetuated.
I just felt sort of let down. What started as a magical adventure turned into a picture of the world I’m all too familiar with. White men on top, white women just under, and no representation outside of that at all. If you are going to show me an alternate reality, please follow through.
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The Sincerity Project- Team Sunshine/Fringe 2016

Fiona is a white, Jewish, dual-citizenship carrying feminist. Creator/performer/thinker. She is excited about the future.

Tracker is a cis male theatre practitioner. He likes West Philly more than any other part of the city.

 

Tracker: So what was in your pockets for this production?

Fiona: Not a lot – I had heard quite a few people talking about the concept, but I’m new to Philadelphia, and so hadn’t seen their show two years ago. What about you?

Tracker: I had quite a bit more in my pockets: I have seen the first iteration in 2014. I know a couple of people in the show personally. I also tangentially worked on the technical side of The Sincerity Project 2016.

Fiona: Oh wow, cool! A lot more involved than me, that’s interesting. How did you feel after the show?

Tracker: To be completely honest, and speaking as someone who saw the first iteration: I felt underwhelmed and disappointed. For those who aren’t/weren’t familiar with The Sincerity Project, it is a 24-year-long experiment in devised theatre, where the performers of the piece come together every two years to try, as best as possible, to honestly tell an audience, and each other, where they are in their lives. How did you feel?

 

Fiona: The same way. I was super intrigued to see a show with that amount of theatricality in its sustained length, but by the end of it, I felt forgotten about as an audience member. It seemed so clear to me that the artists are making this piece for their family and friends. Meanwhile, I don’t know them, and I still didn’t feel like I knew them by the end of this performance.

Tracker: That was a major criticism of the first iteration, as well. Some people found it quite resonant (moreso for folks who know the performers personally), while others felt like this piece was geared towards family and friends only. I had a very strong, personally resonant reaction to the first iteration. This iteration, though, felt hollow to me, and fell flat.

Fiona: On the website it said that you didn’t need to see the first performance to understand this second one. But I was completely lost – when they started it by saying that they were going to have fewer personal stories, I was intrigued, because that meant the artists had an interesting job ahead of them to get me to understand and know them without sharing their stories. But that moment never came. What was resonant to you about the first instillation?

Tracker: I think it came down to where I was, personally, in my life at the time. I was coming to a place where I realized I needed greater honesty and sincerity from myself, and seeing that production at that time struck a chord with my personal intentions. Also, in 2014, they had a great choir, composed of other performers who don’t form the core repeat performers of The Sincerity Project.

 

Fiona: Yeah, I’ve heard about this choir.

 

Tracker: Let’s talk more about some aspects of this iteration. I wanted to talk about Ben Camp’s baby opening the show. What did you think of her being introduced?

 

Fiona: Yes, let’s talk about that, because I went to the 10pm show and she wasn’t there! They used a pillow!

Tracker: How intriguing! That makes sense, since at the 8pm show I went to, Ben said it was past her bedtime already.

 

Fiona: Yeah, so in a lot of ways, I feel even more swindled because I was robbed of that kind of sincerity. Substituting a pillow for you daughter is, on a purely functional level, insincere.

Tracker: They could have cut the bit, or explained it away maybe.

Fiona: Or not had a 10pm show.

 

Tracker: But in actual practice, I found it distasteful, or at least the optics were bad. At the 8pm performance, Ben entered onstage with a baby in his arms. He introduces her as his actual daughter. Then he passes her off to his actual sister, Rachel, and continues on his monologue. To me, it looked like a man having a baby but then giving it away to the only woman left onstage to then take care of it, while he talked.

Fiona: Ohhh, interesting.

Tracker: Then his other sister, Elena—not involved in the show directly as a performer—takes his baby away to put her to bed. Also? Maybe don’t bring your baby to Plays and Players. It can be a dangerous space. While Ben’s daughter was running around the bare plywood stage and into the aisles, I was distracted with the terror that she’d get injured somehow. (This is just my personal opinion, but it was a bad start for me.)

 

Fiona: Yeah, for sure, that kind of distraction/worry can’t be great for the start of the show. And that’s an interesting point about passing the child off to a woman. But honestly, my distaste for putting an 18 month old in the show is wondering whether she actively asked to be in the performance, or if Ben put her in the show because he wanted to.

Tracker: What point did that serve that a picture on his smartphone couldn’t have?

 

Fiona: Yep. An 18 month old can’t give consent to something they don’t fully understand. There’s a difference between a toddler saying “I want to be with daddy onstage” and a toddler saying “yes” when you ask them if they want to be with daddy onstage. One is active and one is potentially manipulated. But because it was a pillow in my performance, I wasn’t dwelling too much on that, because other things were bothering me.

Tracker: What bothered you about the piece?

 

Fiona: I feel like this idea that the artists are making a show for their family and friends is probably the root of what I find annoying. The 24 year period is totally fascinating, but I would have loved for the show to be ABOUT something that NECESSITATED a 24 year period. Like, if they made a show about aging that required them to check in every two years. And sometimes they did stuff that kind of landed on that accidentally…like with Aram and the cooler of beer. But the show wasn’t actually ABOUT anything…except for making a show that lasts 24 years. And ultimately that means it’s ABOUT the artists, and I don’t know them. And they didn’t do a great job of getting me to know them.

Tracker: Yeah. And in the performance I saw, they said that they weren’t going to repeat certain pieces that in the first iteration they said they would.

 

Fiona: Right! And at that moment I was like, “Well, what’s the point then?”

Tracker: Whatever the point was, this iteration did not make it.

 

Fiona: Agreed. There were moments that I found, purely on an aesthetic level, to be really interesting, but aesthetic never does it for me entirely. If there’s nothing of substance underneath it, I lose interest.

Tracker: Aesthetic for me can really do it, if it’s executed well enough. There were so many moments like that in the first iteration. Somehow, transplanting it to Plays and Players (the original was at FringeArts) and adding two years, things just didn’t seem executed nearly as well.

 

Fiona: How did you feel about the production design?

Tracker: It was merely functional in set and lighting and didn’t amplify or detract from the rest of the show.

 

Fiona: Yep. I liked the space. I thought it was interesting. I kind of felt it was underused.

 

Tracker: Did you understand the point/idea of the circle on the ground downstage? If you could see it anyway.

 

Fiona: I think I vaguely associated it with truth telling, or confession.

Tracker: Yeah, I thought it was odd they didn’t explain it. In 2014 they explicitly stated it was a zone where no artifice was allowed

 

Fiona: Hmm. That’s hilarious, because my presence as an audience member instantly creates a theatrical artifice. I get what they’re trying to do now (I didn’t when I saw it), but I don’t even know if it’s possible to make theater in the way they’re striving for. Even with two human beings sitting together and talking, there’ll be artifice.

Tracker: And in 2014 they used the circle a lot more. Hence the “there’s going to be less personal storytelling” caveat.

 

Fiona: Ahhhhh. Okay. One of the many things I would have no understanding/access to without having seen the first show. Well, I did not find this project sincere. And I kind of forgot that was the starting point after the first few minutes of the piece.

Tracker: Me too. What did you think of some of the repeated movement pieces? Like the strip-down, jumping-jack, re-clothe bit?

 

Fiona: It oddly enough served as one of the only guide posts that I had through the piece. It was a repetition that oriented me, serving a more structural function than conceptual. Maybe there’s something there about literally stripping away artifice, but I fundamentally do not believe that by being naked you are automatically more truthful. I think it’s kind of silly to assume it’s that simple.

Tracker: Yeah, I didn’t get the “why” but I liked that it was there. It lent a sort of communal/ensemble feel to the cast, that most of them engaged in it. But yes, being merely physically naked can be and is in itself a performative act.

 

Fiona: Totally. One of the more “performative” segments was the one that worked the best for me, which was the ending, when Jenna went through her sort of ritual of getting naked and checking in with the different stations onstage. Having Rachel talk for her was definitely theatrical, but it was the first moment I felt like I was seeing something real.

Tracker: I did like that storytelling moment, but personally was also put off a bit by how many circle confessionals were actors talking about other actors. That was a new thing in 2016’s iteration. Maybe that was an intentional change.

 

Fiona: Oh, interesting. Yeah I kind of wonder what it’ll be like in 2018. Do you think you’ll see it then?

Tracker: In complete disclosure, I’m personally invested in seeing this whole project through as an audience member, or as much of it as I can. I will be seeing it in 2018, and for as long as they can run it. It may continue to disappoint, or it may blow my mind. So much changes in two years. So much stays the same.

 

Fiona: I know. I ultimately think that it’s unfair for me to say that I’m turned off of seeing the next instillation based on this one – if the whole point is that it continues for 24 years, then how could it possibly be the same show? Ergo, how could I possibly decide not to see a new version? I am curious about some of the things that turned me off of this performance – if they’ll be there next time.

Tracker: I actually don’t think it’s unfair if you or anyone are turned off from this iteration. That’s a risk that Team Sunshine should be aware of. If they said you didn’t need to see 2014 to enjoy or appreciate 2016, that’s on them if they lose audiences.

 

Fiona: Yeah, that’s fair. I guess if I enjoy myself more in 2018 than I did now, that may be a sign that they’re not doing a good job of welcoming new audiences to their shows. But I have a feeling (especially after talking to you, who HAS seen the first production), that that’s not necessarily all that’s going on here.

Cellophane-Philly Fringe

Fiona is a white, Jewish, dual-citizenship carrying feminist. Creator/performer/thinker. She is excited about the future.

I like coming to theater pieces with very little in my pocket; just a gal walking into a space ready to be entertained with no previous knowledge about the production beforehand. Sometimes that makes it harder to understand the work, but I like it when it doesn’t. In that vein, I came to Cellophane by Mac Wellman, produced by the company jenny&john with the following things in my pocket: the trailer and a hangover. Watching the trailer days before led me to believe that I was coming to watch a multimedia piece that oversaturated my senses. I was not incorrect. But upon the start of the show, I was surprised to find that there were actual actors in this piece. Wait, this is a play?

 

I understand now that Mac Wellman, the playwright, likes to intentionally blur language. So it’s not entirely surprising that I did not understand a word of Cellophane. It was all in English, but it was purely nonsensical. Despite this, there was a very clear narrative arc: a group of people gather in one of the coolest theatrical spaces I have ever seen for what appears to be a meeting. Tensions are high. It’s awkward. People start to get angry. They argue. They gesticulate. Someone leaves the room after yelling at the rest of the group.

 

The direction (Jenny Kessler) made the story so clear in this production. Character was revealed in the spaces between the dialogue, and these moments were sharp, hilarious, and a genuine pleasure to watch. I almost enjoyed them the most, because without the unintelligible text intervening in my narrative-creating brain, the silence felt like the clearest moments of storytelling.

 

Until. Eventually, technology entered the world of the play. The behavior between the characters and the manner of their arguments made me believe that there was an ethical question about technology being posited. One character’s entrance brought radio, television, and projections. And everyone was transfixed. All were either obsessed or panicked as an equally nonsensical voice emanated from the radio, or as patchworked images and clips of war blasted from televisions, or, eventually, as some pretty clearly anti-meme culture projections stopped the action of the play and took over the story entirely. These final projections were thrown up on a clear tarp that separated the audience from the characters in a climactic moment of reveal – I don’t know what the characters proved, but in the several minutes of projections, they became almost became ape like, completely overpowered by what the Cellophane blurb describes as “a 21st century media-saturated, YOLO here we go bonanza.”

 

With plays that are very intentional about the way they distort language, I am hesitant to decide what the play “means.” Or, what the playwright is “trying to say” (I think the operative word in that sentence to scrutinize is “say”). In a 2015 profile on Wellman by the New York Times, Alexis Solosky writes that his “only mantra is Oddity.” That’s why I’m not entirely sure if it is in Wellman’s script of Cellophane that these anti-consumerist, anti-media, anti-technology themes take shape, or if that was jenny&john’s addition to the project. To once again draw from the FringeArts blurb on the piece, Cellophane “dizzyingly rastles with the complexities of being American.” Whether that was Wellman’s intention or jenny&john’s artistic vision, that description is very accurate.

 

I am still confused, however, and here is why: it feels ironic to me that a piece condemning media and technology for devouring our lives and leaving us thoughtless could feature the most visually compelling and artistically stimulating projection design. All of the design in this play was super cool – major props are due to: John Bezark for projections, Katherine Barton for set, Alex Neumann and Ian Gold for sound, Alex Denevers for lighting, and Kristen Schuman Phaneuf for costumes. That’s all technology, isn’t it? Or thereby made possible?

 

Cellophane made me think about the anti-technology stance. I’m a big fan of laughing about it. I particularly liked the #HowToConfuseAMillennial trend that totally backfired on Baby Boomers, and I’m one of these artists who is super, super excited to see where the blend of multimedia video and projection work will take theater in the future. And to Cellophane’s credit, I understand that there’s a difference between technology and digital media, but (and maybe I’m just hashtag such a millennial), I like to think of these separate concepts as two bubbles of a venn diagram, with all negative and positive attributes coexisting. Yes, we are connected on a frequency that is much quicker than ever before in human history, and yes, that creates problems. Yet at the end of the day, I just think it’s such a shame that a play about the dangers of technological media also happened to pull off said media spectacularly.

PANGAEA: A FOLK OPERA

Faye is a queer cyborg and poet.

Alexa is a cis woman, a queer mermaid, an actor-poet hybrid, and seven cats in a people suit.

 

Alexa

So what’s in your pockets?

 

Faye

Bits and pieces of things mostly–I have previously seen performances by/involving lead artist Anna Michael, Travis Braue-Fischbach, and Jeremy Adam. I also got heart-eyes for sci-fi. How about yourself?

 

Alexa

I’ve worked with both Anna and Travis before, Anna as a castmate and Travis as our trusty stage manager and troubadour. I also worked with Anna as slinging gelato at the same part-time job all summer, and heard about the development of the Hum’n’Bards and the Pangaea project back when they were a particularly shiny gleam in her eye. I was excited to see the final product of all that scheming, and to see what Anna can do when she’s at the helm of a production.

 

Faye

I have been writing notes about this show all night and I barely know where to start! There are so many intricate moving parts within the piece, it feels like a delicate task to find a jumping-off point. The set, I guess, could be a more-or-less “natural” place to start off talking about a show where much of the emotional weight is centered upon space(s) and location? Right? What were your first impressions?  

 

Alexa

I think the set is a great jumping-off point to talk about that, because it is literally comprised of those moving parts. The design is minimal, but carries clear intent. The MacGuffin’s black box space is left mostly open, which I think works well for both the concert format and the post-apocalyptic setting. Aside from the musical instruments hanging from the rafters (!), the handful of black blocks onstage are all the actors really need to clearly communicate place, story, and relationships – Director Jasmine Kojouri clearly runs a tight ship with those transitions and strong stage pictures. In true fringe fashion, we’re seeing basic resources (bodies and blocks) used very effectively to shape and punctuate story on a large scale: as the cast dismantles the central heap of blocks, the world of the play very literally breaks apart and remakes itself in weird new configurations. The uneven, vivid pink outlines of jagged shapes gaff taped along the walls added to this impression of an upended puzzle.

 

Faye

I really love the puzzle image. For me, part of the sheer wonder of Pangaea was that the “rules” of the puzzle kept changing. Black blocks that were once islands are moved throughout the play to join a larger block-continent, only to be separated and moved again. What appeared to be plain dark space pops with hidden gaff tape (I think it was gaff tape) midway through the show, when the space is abruptly flooded with blacklights and jarring, darting day-glo lines.

 

Alexa

Aw man that lighting moment is EPIC, nice one from Will Jonez. Also cool how the one really distinctive bit of costuming is a bright, jagged neon marking on each actor’s face (by makeup artist Ashley Fisher Tannenbaum). Really ties the performers and the space together for some sweet sweet design cohesion. This is one case where having one designer (Emily R. Johnson) do both set and costumes paid off.

 

Faye

Yes! And I feel that this works to really speak to the unstable nature of (surviving in) the apocalyptic future Pangaea proposes, where volcanoes and floodwaters have swallowed cities and time is measured in Days Since Christina Higgins’ Character Last Had A Domino’s Pizza.

 

Alexa

They strike a nice tonal balance between… like, the internal epic tragedy of never being able to hit “cheese it up” on the Domino’s delivery site ever again, and the incomprehensible loss of surviving a natural disaster that uproots your entire society, including all the mundane comforting junk. I think the music walks that line really well too, between dark big-scope terror and silly zoomed-in character stories. I will say the night we went, the one glitch in the programming for me was the volume on the louder plugged-in songs, because a lot of the lyrics got drowned out by amped instruments – bummer for a folk opera where plot and context happen on the lyric. That’s likely why the songs that stuck with me were the acoustic numbers, like Anna and Christine’s jaunty, spooky uke duet “Do It.” All that said, I think their Set List pulls off a great tightrope act between musical stylization and lyrical earnestness: lots of upbeat tap-your-feet melodies and raw, frank confessional storytelling.  

 

Faye

I found the music to be quite haunting in a quiet and inconspicuous sort of way. Like, there are some sheer breath-takers –“Be Afraid” comes to mind, which contrasts Jeremy Adams’ strong vocals with these hushed, huddled ensemble moments – but I was also nicely unsettled by those silly “little-scope” things, like Anna Michael’s verse in “The Friendship Song” where she sings about living alone in a tree and growing antsy over Possibly Seeing Another Person. There is humor to it, but beneath that there’s a desperation for closeness and connectivity that makes the song a little bit tragic in its own right.   

 

Alexa

I love that moment! I love watching Anna because she’s very funny, but she never lets humor override emotional honesty. She’s great at sprawling out and living openly onstage. And meanwhile Christina’s downstage having that bonkers ballet pantomime with the tiny stuffed hedgehog. True innovators.

 

Faye

But actually! Most post-apocalyptic narratives I’ve seen focus on how people get on as communities after the world ends. Pangaea tells a different story, of individuals splitting and sequestering for survival. This piece does something pretty novel with the genre by challenging T.S. Elliot’s “the world will end not with a bang, but a whimper” approach to the apocalypse: the world ends and it is a HUGE bang, if only because the every survivor is hiding in a cave while simultaneously shouting out, “HELLO?! I’M STILL HERE!”

Alexa

Yeah! I felt like a lot of the play lived in that contradictory tension of withdrawing into technology in order to scream into the void: how we close ourselves off from the physical world around us when we get too absorbed in our devices, but ironically we’re using those devices to send desperate streaming S.O.S signals of our existence TO the outside world.

 

Faye

And in that way, I feel that Pangaea exposes a huge problem with the way the IRL/URL dichotomy is approached, specifically the idea that the IRL world/mode of connection is more “real”/”deep”/”meaningful”/”purposeful” than the other (Nathan Jurgenson calls the way the IRL/URL split is treated “the IRL Fetish,” which I feel really sums up the notion!!!). Like, the fear of disconnection that many of the characters face is not based in the loss of their technological “luxuries”/that they have to survive in the “real world” without their phones, but in how many of their usual means of communication have suddenly become inadequate – how they still have cell reception but no one alive to text. The scene where a phone is found in the woods and two complete strangers text excitedly or hours is no less of a “real connection” than the few scenes where characters recognize/speak to one another face to face.

 

Alexa

Nice point. I mean, all of my closest friends when I was growing up were “strangers” from the Internet, because at the time I expressed myself much more honestly and confidently in writing than I did in person. I think Pangaea did a fair job of showing how there’s room for tech mediums to bring people together, while also exploring how much they can drive us apart. In a key moment near the end, Anna talks to the audience about her fears at the root of the Pangaea metaphor: that human connection as we know it is going extinct, and we were not born to survive in the approaching pod-like isolation, though our children may learn to thrive in it.

 

Faye

The main thing that Pangaea had me thinking when I left the theatre was “What are the ‘rules’ of loneliness?”–what spurs/kindles loneliness, and how do changes in one’s environment affect their potential connectivity or isolation?     

 

Alexa  

For me, the magic of this show is how it celebrates the bizarre, desperate, makeshift ways people hunt for connection when their old methods are rendered obsolete. I entered the theater feeling crappy and closed-off for no good reason (because loneliness doesn’t need a good reason), but I left feeling hopeful because of those displays of desperation. It made me feel like the rules of human connection can be reshaped as we go, to change with the new rules of loneliness and poke through them, like hacks in a code, or sprouts in a cracked sidewalk.

Wolves at Gay Fest- Quince Productions

Espie is a queer mixed race director and producer who is coming to terms with her desire to change the world.

Fiona is a white, Jewish, dual-citizenship carrying feminist. Creator/performer/thinker. She is excited about the future.

 

Espie: So, what did you have in your pockets going in?

Fiona: I had: a completely blank slate with Philadelphia theatre (this was my first show I saw here), no knowledge of the playwright, director, or theater, and a deep curiosity regarding the 9:30pm program slot, ha. This curiosity was ultimately addressed, of course.

Espie: Yeah, 9:30 is an odd time, but I actually really like having this piece be during the later time slot since it fell into the horror genre.

Fiona: Totally. It added to the general sense of darkness. I had just come off a dark street in the middle of the night to a play that was describing dark streets in the middle of the night.

Espie: For sure! And inside my pockets – I am good friends with one of the actors in the piece. 2012’s GayFest! was actually my first Philly theatre gig back in the day so it has some sentimental value for me.

Fiona: Ahh that’s great! What was your experience like watching this piece 4 years later?

Espie: Firstly, it’s really incredible how much this festival has grown. Rich Rubin, who is the artistic director of Quince Productions does a really great job producing.  For a small festival, I think the production value is great.  There were packed houses for both of the shows that I saw on Saturday night.

Fiona: Yeah, it was a pretty full house on Friday night too.

Espie: And, given how intense this piece was, I think that’s really exciting. I was definitely excited going in – you don’t see a lot of horror on stage and I was ready to be scared.

Fiona: Yeah, that may be one of my favorite theater genres. I think the medium has the capacity to really capitalize on our feelings of unease. It’s a live show and the audience is (most of the time) socially obligated to sit still and watch, so the design gets to do really cool things. I particularly loved how much lime green there was in WOLVES’ lighting (designed by John Allerheiligen). I’ve heard lighting designers talk about how green is usually used to elicit feelings of apprehension, since green light is supposed to make people nauseous.

Espie: I never knew that – that’s really interesting!  Yeah, I thought the lighting definitely elicited some foreboding queasiness.  I also love the sound of the masking tape getting ripped from the floor at the end, though I will say I didn’t completely understand what exactly the tape was supposed to represent before it was ripped up.  

Fiona: I kind of liked that – to me the ambiguity of the ending just added to the general chaos of the final moments of the play. Which I assume is indicative of the descending chaos of Ben’s sanity? I dug it.

Espie: I agree with the chaos liked the effect during the last several minutes, especially with the end result being such a vast emptiness, but I did get distracted during the play trying to figure out why the floor was covered in tape.  Was it representative of the apartment’s floor plan?   Was there actually tape in the apartment?  Everything else that Wolf was destroying (flipping over the couch, lights, etc.) existed concretely in their world, I wish the tape had a more specific use in the world.

Fiona: Mmm that’s a good point. Yeah, to be completely honest, I had no idea that the tape was supposed to be a floor plan until I realized that when Ben was listening to music, he was in a different room – and that didn’t happen until at least halfway through the play. I think I might have actually thought that the tape was just thorough spike marks. But it WAS a cool revelation of space to suddenly make the tape a part of the set.

Espie: Yeah, I also didn’t realize that Ben was in a different room until about halfway through also. Also, I thought the props were really great – when Ben and Jack came back onstage with the trash bags that were supposed to have the dead body in them, it got me spooked. (Props design by Admiral Grey)

Fiona: Totally. And on that vein – I think that the use of the blood was really classy. It diverts the whole problem of the audience being like, “ahhh…we know he’s not actually dead.”

Espie: I was just about to bring that up – the moment where The Narrator poured the blood on Wolf was really stunning.

Fiona: So let’s talk about The Narrator. I appreciated the character’s utility – how she stopped and started the story and everything, but there were elements of her character that both confused and frustrated me.

Espie: I agree – I really loved that character at the top of the play.  She the potential to be the most terrifying element of the story, but as the show went on, it became less and less clear what her impact on Ben really was.  I feel like the play would’ve ended the same way regardless of whether or not Ben continued to listen to her.

Fiona: Totally. I was also a little concerned that she ended up becoming the physical embodiment of Ben’s bad thoughts and anxieties. Every time she whispered something to him, he regressed into panic, and a damaging choice ensued. So, while I get that as a theatrical convention – it was striking to me that she was the only woman in the play and that ended up being her role.

Espie: Interesting, can you explain a little more why that bothered you?  I find since anxiety is such an overwhelming and powerful emotion that positing a woman in that role actually gives her a position of power and control and, having her be able to manipulate Ben’s emotion when at the top of the play she was built as a mother figure, turns the female as caregiver stereotype on its head.

Fiona: Well, I guess I’m not crazy about the only female role in a play being either the caregiver or the manipulative seductress. I don’t find the reversal of one for the other particularly subversive because that tends to be the only two things a middle aged woman can be. I also was pretty certain from the very beginning of the play that she was a physical manifestation of Ben in some way – I think it was because of the effect she had on him when she whispered into his ear in that first moment, and that she was very specific about her narrating the play as Ben’s story. And because the play was so woven into the specifics and very apt details of what it feels like to be a gay, sexually active man, I ended up feeling confused as to why her voice was female at all. It ultimately felt like a suggestion that the destructive parts of Ben’s psyche are female.

Espie: Thanks so much for pointing that out.  I hadn’t thought about it as deeply.

Fiona: But I am interested in your perspective of that relationship – I also hadn’t seen her arc of the play as a reversal until now.

Espie: I think coming into the space with The Narrator and Ben singing and The Narrator showing Ben how to play guitar really started her off in a more caring place. The first time she whispered in Ben’s ear was, for me, a really exciting and powerful moment.  It wasn’t until Ben was noted that she was the one making him saying the words during the monologue while he killed Wolf that I really saw her as solely that manifestation.  Before that I did think of her more as an outside power.  Also, after that point the audience interaction sharply decreases which, for me, marks a turning point in the character’s functionality.  I found my problems with the character came after that point because she does seem to get more passive, save unleashing Wolf, following that.

Fiona: Mmm that’s fair. I guess because I saw her as Ben and Ben has such a dramatic shift in the last bits of the play, I didn’t so much question the lack of audience-directed narration towards the end. It made sense to me that when Ben changes, the Narrator would change. I will say though that my questions about the Narrator’s role in the play being problematic in now way kept me from enjoying the piece. I was really, really engaged the whole time.

Espie: Janice Rowland did a really fantastic job.

Fiona: She was very funny.

Espie: Agreed, I also think Evan Raines was really compelling as Ben.  That’s not an easy role and I was able to buy into the character.

Fiona: He was actually the character with which I had the clearest experience of a reversal. I didn’t really see the ending when we first met him; I thought that through a combination of the Narrator and Jack, something would go wrong – not that Ben would completely transform and take charge.

Espie: While I didn’t necessarily see Ben in charge of The Narrator during the whole of the play, I think he was pretty clearly and disturbingly in charge of the relationship between him and Jack so I wasn’t as surprised to see the plot go on the way it did.  Also, to circle back to our prior conversation regarding the narrator I think our differing views on Ben’s control definitely influenced our reading of that character, which I find really interesting!

Fiona: Ooh that’s so true. I totally didn’t see that. I guess once Jack came home with Wolf and spent the first several moments of that hook-up trying to make Ben jealous, it was clearer to me that Ben had an active hold on Jack, but up until then, I don’t think I spotted that. Although it did take Jack an AWFULLY LONG time to leave the apartment in the first scene, so I guess I should have seen that as an indication.

Espie: The amount of emotional abuse in that first scene was hard to watch at times not because the play was endorsing those behaviors, but because it was such an accurate depiction.

Fiona: Yeah I had a similar experience. I will also say that because this play wasn’t racially specific in any way, I would have loved to see a lot more diversity than what I took in.

Espie: I agree.  In terms of the story, for me, it made it a lot less believable that the action was taking place in the city.  Also, given the amount of violence in the show, emotional and physical, I was surprised that there wasn’t a trigger warning.

Fiona: Yeah, that makes sense. I knew nothing about the show, and luckily I’m not personally triggered by violence, but I can absolutely see how the lack of a content warning would put someone else at a huge disadvantage for enjoying the piece.

Espie: Overall, though, I really did enjoy myself.  I found the piece thoroughly entertaining with strong performances, design, and direction. (Directed by Michael Osinski)

Fiona: Absolutely. I thought the direction was really smart and the design left me with a sense of anxiety that I weirdly really appreciate. I was totally enthralled.