Antagonyms- Curio Theater

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

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

Melissa is a white cis woman, a new play enthusiast, a feminist. She craves theatre that connects urgent ideas to human stories.

Grimke: Ok- so pockets: I know pretty much everyone involved in this show in one way or another. That seems to be the case most of the time, but this one in particular, I know the playwright Rachel Gluck and director Jack Tamburri well. There was only one cast person I don’t know at all, and I know the LD Dominic Chacon pretty well.  I’d even read a VERY early draft of the script.

Tracer: The playwright is a close friend of mine, as well. I was also one of her early readers of several drafts. I know about half of the cast as well. And I have worked with the lighting designer before.

Melissa: I don’t know Rachel very well, but had actually seen a reading of it a couple of years ago when I was new to Philly, so I was carrying that with me. I will say that I remember not really enjoying the script from that reading a couple years ago. I also had quite a few friends working on the show. And in general, I work with a lot of local playwrights, so I’m usually rooting for their success. Actually watching it, I’d had a couple of drinks beforehand.

Grimke: I think most theatre is better with a drink or two.

Melissa: Truth. So it seems like we all came in wanting the play to succeed.

Grimke: definitely. though, I very rarely enter a play wanting it to fail–except for Neil Labute. I generally want him to fail. That’s my own personal bias though.

Melissa: Well yeah, assholes deserve nothing.

Grimke: NO ASSHOLES ON THIS PLAY. I genuinely really like the people I know who worked on this show.

Melissa: Similar feelings here!

Grimke: Let’s start with production. I’m going to be honest in that I think the stage manager was off a cue or two for most of the performance I saw, so I liked some of the lighting design, but some of it was obviously off the night I was there.

Tracer: I did not notice that on the night I saw the show.

Grimke: I think (lighting designer) Dominic Chacon did a good job creating 3 distinct environments in a very small space. It was a bedroom, a bar, and an alley in what? – 20 feet? How did the lights work for you?

Tracer: I appreciated Dom’s use of color to enhance the noir overtone of the direction. Sometimes the actors weren’t in light while they were onstage, though. That could be an actor or venue issue more than design, though. There was one moment where Dorian was sitting above the bar seat. It looked like a viable acting space and not the actor’s (Alexander Scott Rich)  fault for going out of bounds. He was dark there.

Grimke: That happened my night too.

Melissa: I noticed a lot of those moments too, but I was kind of taken with those moments when a man would be talking to a woman–usually Charlotte–and be totally in darkness while the woman listening was in full light. The moment you were describing, with Dorian perched on the bar, seems like it could be one of those because Mauve was in full light.  It felt like a way to place the woman at the center of the conversation in a way that was exciting.

Grimke: I hadn’t thought of that.

Melissa: But it wasn’t consistent. For example, I’m thinking of the moment when Dorian is talking to Johnny about discovering Johnny’s prostitute past (another moment of giant plot that felt unmotivated), and Dorian is in full light looking down at Johnny while Johnny is in darkness on the floor. So the effect is that we get the full force of Dorian–but because the actor is looking down, we don’t see Dorian’s eyes at all. Dorian looks like his eyes are closed, and we can’t see how this information is affecting the person listening which was a pretty big problem for me. It undercut those other moments.

Grimke: The inconsistency of the choices is what made me feel like maybe it wasn’t on purpose.

Tracer: The set was incredible. It adapted to the venue so well. Crammed so much into a small space without it ever feeling cramped.

Grimke: (Set designer) Paul Kuhn is a genius. He’s an installation artist. It was the right amount of space vs clutter. It’s always so immersive and transformative.

Melissa: Yeah I thought the set was effective, it was able to get a lot done in a limited space–much like the lighting.

Tracer: One of the false brick overlays was peeling off the wall in the alley setting on the night I went. I’d heard that the set lost its usual labor resource, so I’m still super impressed that Paul basically built all that by himself.

Grimke: For as little space as he had, the set allowed for many places for actors to do their work

I’m always partial to sets that do that–really help the script and actors instead of hindering anyone.

Tracer: It was a static set differentiated primarily by lighting, but it still had so much movement

Grimke: Paul! May you get work elsewhere! He’s the most underappreciated set designer in town

Tracer: Truth.

Grimke: Give him all the Barrymores! ALL OF THEM. In general, the production was on point! Costumes (Aetna Gallagher) and sound (Liz Atkinson) were also great. Though sound was held hostage to the Noir theme.

Melissa: I agree with you and Tracer that sound did its job but there was too much of it.

Tracer: I really liked the costumes. With every actor’s entrance, the costumes laid such a great foundation of who they were overall and who they were in each scene.

Grimke- Again just like the sets – really providing insight into the characters and the world. I loved the transformation of Charlotte “in character” and in a fancy dressing gown to her being in bike shorts and a t-shirt when she thinks she’s alone. That was a chapter of character analysis in a moment.

Tracer: I specifically remember being struck by Dorian’s costume. It was so precisely selected for him. It told me so much I needed to know and expect without being overdone and without running interference on the audience-surprise I could get out of his character as the play went on

Grimke: I really loved how Mauve was dressed. Everyone else felt like they were people who wear a costume as armor and to draw attention, and she was just trying to blend in.

Tracer: Ah! Yes! What a great choice for that character! Given what we find out by the end! It all told me so much but without shouting it

Grimke: How did you like the transitions? To explain- The performers moved in slow motion to indicate time advancing, but it didn’t work for me. I personally felt like they were one thing too many. Does that make sense? The play had noir layered on it by costume and sound, and putting a stylized movement that wasn’t part of that on top was confusing for me.

Tracer: Yeah, I knew what was happening, but it really took me out of the show in a way that felt inconsistent.

Grimke: The device also wasn’t consistent. Some transitions were lights off-move in dark- traditional, so I spent too much time being confused by what it meant

Tracer: To be honest, I felt the noir directorial choice by Jack Tamburri was itself inconsistent too, and this showed in the transitions, as well as the baffling choice of all the unlit cigarettes.

Melissa: I’m conflicted about the noir. I understand the impulse–with the heightened language, it felt like a way to justify it in the world–but because it was so heightened I actually wonder whether being more realistic would have helped more for me

Grimke: I feel like Jack needed to choose a thing. The unlit cigarettes I understand due to fire code, but just have people fake light them behind a cupped hand. The audience will get it. Don’t turn it into a stylized movement choice. The language didn’t need another layer on top for me to follow

Melissa: It felt like Jack was building a world around the heightened language and plot, but in doing so actually ended up accenting what I perceived as artificiality in a way that, for me, wasn’t helpful. For example, the smokeless smoking became emblematic of the characters themselves.

Tracer: Yeah. There was open flame. Four inches away from a cigarette. To make a literal stroke with an actual lighter but then stop short of it was odd and another point that really took me out of the show.

Grimke:  Overall I felt like Jack did a good job of moving people around the stage, putting focus where it was supposed to be, and highlighting and low lighting in the script, but he lost in me in some detail choices like transitions and the noir theme. Also, I’m sure he had no light hand in all the design and performance we loved so much, but the transitions and styling of the show was what lost me. It’s a great play. Just let it be a play, you know?

Melissa: I agree with a lot of that. I think those choices–the movement, the stylized transitions–were visually striking and kind of ambitious, but they didn’t belong in this play. It underscored what for me felt like the characters posturing, which undercut my ability to invest in their interactions.

Tracer: I also found the levels of acting ability/choices throughout the ensemble pretty inconsistent, like they were serving different visions of the play at the same time

Grimke: I had moments like that, but they were the minority for sure.

Tracer: For my experience, Colleen Hughes fucking killed it. There was a lot both big and small that she did for portraying Mauve that really hit it for me. When she was the one out of four people on stage without lines, just reacting? She had a lot of sublime moments just being in the same place as other people

Grimke: See for me it was Allee Spadoni’s Charlotte. I know that person. I was really excited to see an actor I didn’t know doing so well, and that is a really hard character.

Melissa: As much as I had trouble connecting to Charlotte, I also thought the actor playing her was really talented.

Tracer: I had only met Alee the night of opening, and I saw the show later. Tell me more about her performance.

Melissa: She was doing exactly what she needed to for that character, she had this striking voice and slight noir accent, her presence carried a brittle vulnerability that wasn’t in the writing itself for me, which helped a lot. I thought Colleen did a great job as well. I think I liked her portrayal of Mauve most because she had the fewest walls up. She was just trying to get by, she supports her partner, she’s trying to make friends.

Grimke: I loved Colleen, but I was surprised by Charlotte’s character in a good way. For me it is was just very clear. As a person you know that she’s always “on” and very few people get to see her “off”. So when she did turn “off” it was subtle but shocking how big a difference it was. Same body, but different person, and then you just watch her turn it back on

Tracer: Yeah, ok

Grimke: You didn’t like it?

Tracer: I didn’t get that sense from her performance on the night I saw it. When she switched “off,” it felt more like the actor switched off instead of the character. I thought she suddenly became very flat, not vulnerable. The thing was, excepting that moment, every actor made very consistent choices for their own character throughout. Even so, it felt uneven, as an ensemble. Dorian felt like he existed in a somewhat different play, and Charlotte felt the same in a few scenes, and Jonny (Drew Carroll) for me also seemed flat–except for his scene in Charlotte’s place, and while in the scene I saw layers, it felt unearned because of how I saw his performance throughout the rest of the show. It is entirely possible, though, that I just didn’t get it

Grimke: Yeah, I felt like I could see him and Dorian ACTING a lot more than the 2 ladies

Tracer: Right. I saw more the craft than the result, which is distracting to me.

Grimke: Me too. Also, I’m fascinated by this. Of all the characters I hated Mauve the most. I found her insipid, but both you and Tracer really liked her. I guess I just never bought her motivations? Anyone who starts dating an addict to “fix” them isn’t a “normal” person. I figured she was trying to atone for something.

Melisssa: Oh I didn’t remotely think that’s why she started dating Johnny. I thought that was how she supported him, by helping him in recovery.

Grimke: That was my first impression from that opening speech of Johnny’s- that Mauve is what “made him” sober. We find out by the end that he didn’t quit because he wanted to, he quit because he thought it would get him something

Melissa: I thought Johnny was the one struggling with transference. I don’t think it’s Mauve’s fault that Johnny can’t help putting women on a pedestal and simultaneously blaming them for his failure.

Grimke: Honestly, the thing I was most impressed with in the play was that I should hate all of these people, but I ended up liking all of them. I HATE seeing stories about terrible people. I don’t know why I should care about them and then I feel like my time is wasted. but with this one, I really got invested in each of them in a strange way. They were all trying to survive with all of this weight they were struggling through.

Tracer: I usually like things about bad people, because I’m a miserably miserable human!

Melissa: I can see that was the playwright’s intention but that didn’t come through to me at all. They were terrible people (except Mauve, who in Colleen’s performance is a normal person that has to be conjured into a terrible person at the end) who remained terrible people, bumping up against the world and each other but ultimately not caring for the consequences. Johnny literally dies and none of these people have actually changed.

Tracer: Want to talk about the text? Our most challenging mission? It is definitely absolutely impressive that this was a debut play, and not like a third or fourth play. Rachel Gluck knows her craft.

Grimke: I think actors who pay attention learn a ton about what makes a good play, and she definitely paid attention.

Melissa: As I said, I didn’t enjoy what I had heard two years ago, so part of me was going in hoping it had evolved.

Grimke: Did you feel like it had evolved?

Melissa: No. Not enough.

Grimke: Do tell. Context- Overall I really liked the text, especially having seen it from early drafts. I think we should talk about a script that doesn’t specify any races, is equally gender split, and has queer and trans representation without it being ABOUT the characters being queer or trans. That’s amazing. Plenty of scripts try to do half that and fail at everything. Applause to Rachel on her FIRST PLAY BEING PRODUCED and being better than so many plays I see. It isn’t perfect but it’s getting there

Tracer: Yes! It just let the characters serve their own stories. It was a monumental achievement for sure. I would love to see another production of this show, too.

Grimke: Overall,  felt like the script needed some work, but I’d expect that from a first production.  I love a good heightened world. I wish my world was this deep in jokes and literary references.

Tracer: It’s rapid-fire, it’s clean as well as stylized. I was a bit put off every time Charlotte said “antagonym” though. This is a personal bias: I really get annoyed any time a play or movie says its title.

Grimke: I feel like I hate any time someone says the title in a play or movie.

Tracer: Maybe it came out in other readings where people asked what an antagonym was. But they became more moments where I was taken out of the story and out of the scene.

Grimke: I liked them defining it in the piece, but I feel like it could have been less “everyone stop and hear the title of the piece now”

Tracer: Yeah, especially in such a fraught moment when Charlotte stops everything to talk about the word “left”. It’s consistent with her character, yes, but it was not a great timing to have that happen.

Grimke: Honestly though, I really ENJOYED watching this play. I had fun with those characters. I should have hated all of them by the end, but I ended up loving them and that’s a huge achievement

Tracer: Yeah! I found them all equally fascinating and they all had my sympathy. Even Mauve, with her terrifying revelation- I kinda just wanted better for everyone.

Melissa: See, I really don’t agree. Structurally it was difficult for me. The slow burn of the first act is fine, but then SO MUCH HAPPENS in the second act, it’s one giant event after another in a way that makes the play lopsided for me. As far as I could tell, the only major change since the reading I saw two years ago was how the ending played out, but a lot of what I didn’t enjoy–the self-conscious intellectualism, the facts/trivia/jokes pulling away from the action at critical moments, the characters’ lack of real vulnerability, and *especially* Mauve’s incest–were still present.

Grimke: I really hated the incest twist, because I think it didn’t make any sense. not just because incest doesn’t make any sense but because it didn’t feel supported in the rest of the production either by text or performance

Melissa: Exactly, and in fact it undermines everything we know about Mauve. Mauve is the most human character on that stage, she’s the one I think we connect to the most, for me she’s the only person–but the moment you undercut her love for Johnny, you basically cancel out the play. Everything Mauve did is a lie. So why did I sit here for two hours? Not to mention it basically makes it so at the end of this play, this person’s death literally does not matter.

Grimke: Oh I didn’t feel that way at all. Some of what you listed as what you didn’t enjoy are my favorite parts. Maybe this is telling of my life but I didn’t feel like any of those characters weren’t true to life. They certainly had heightened language like Gilmore girls or Aaron Sorkin, but I generally like that sort of thing. it pushes my brain in a fun way. Charlotte for me was someone I totally understand, while Mauve is someone I pity. I don’t particularly like watching people I pity. Watching her wasn’t that interesting to me. Consequently, I wasn’t that invested in her relationship with Johnny. Clarify- not in a waste of time, not care way, but in a that wasn’t what I was most interested in way.

Melissa: I think the thing that bothered me was that the heightened language never stopped. Even those moments that are supposed to be vulnerable–Charlotte’s “do you think I’m a slut,” Dorian’s “I ran away when I was 15, do you know what happens…”–felt put-on. Which I guess could be seen as a comment, but for me was just relentless. It didn’t allow me to access or believe anyone, which I think I needed to be able to do, because this is a play about these people hurting each other. I need to be able to feel them hurt, and it also made it so that those vulnerable moments felt unmotivated. Like, I don’t think Charlotte would have asked that question.

Grimke: For me people using language as a shield in vulnerable moments is more believable to me than someone breaking down. I’m incredibly likely to make a literary reference or make a dark joke when my emotions reach a certain level. So, that really worked for me, but people I’ve talked to struggled with that

Melissa: The moment that really exemplifies this for me was the Bangarang moment. As far as the audience knows Johnny is trying to rape this woman, but we put in this safe word thing for–what? A laugh in the middle of this rape? After that moment we circle back to the same scene–if you cut that whole exchange nothing in the scene would change, except we wouldn’t see Johnny as a potential rapist. That moment wasn’t even willing to let Johnny go there, we have to excuse him with “Bangarang” because now it looks like he’s just trying to show Charlotte what she wants. It’s a self-conscious joke, it’s a veneer on a moment that should be vulnerable, it’s cruel but it’s not actually willing to be cruel, and it pulls away from the action of the scene. Moments like that kept occurring throughout the play, though not to the extent of that moment. For instance, every time Charlotte says “Antagonym” and explains it–like you and Tracer were saying, it’s deployed in fraught moments and stops the play. And that happens over and over. I can see what you mean about them using language to shield themselves, and I thought that was evident, useful, and effective in those beginning scenes, but as we delve into those larger plot moments  when we have to hinge on what’s affecting these characters, it’s hard for me to sustain

Grimke: I wish she would have hit him or pushed him away to stop it instead of the safe word. Though, I think we are talking about different things. The playwright averting trauma or vulnerability vs. the characters avoiding trauma or vulnerability.

Melissa: Like writing versus directing?

Grimke: I liked how the characters did it, but there were some moments where the playwriting killed the wave we were riding. There were moments where I felt like the playwright didn’t want to let something happen.

Melissa: I think the playwright’s avoiding trauma/vulnerability and the characters’ is one and the same. Because all of that happens in the same world, the characters’ tactics are predicated on the playwrights. And for me it was difficult for this production to rise out of those tactics. I largely agree with the inconsistency in the performances that Tracer described above, and the missteps in direction and design we all felt. I think the root of that is that everyone involved in this show is trying to overcome the text. How can the actors embody characters that don’t have emotional life outside of quips and trivia? How do you strike the balance between honoring the heightened language and plot twists, and working into a universe that isn’t false or melodramatic or laughable?

Grimke: I guess for me, I felt like there were moments where I could see the playwright take a sharp turn from what they had been building toward. I think playwrights build worlds and then record the way they play out. once you set up the equation and variables of the world, you can let it play out and record it and edit it. But sometimes you can see that a playwright is trying to shift the world-laws because they personally don’t like the outcome. They get in their own way, and for me the bangarang moment was like that. It would have been more powerful to both of us if we let Johnny be a bad guy, but she tried to save him from that. Same thing with the incest reveal, it felt like she decided that was the end game but hadn’t built to it.

I’m still really impressed with this as someone’s first play

My first play was fucking terrible, and was trying to do much less than this one

Melissa: I was disappointed in it, because it largely hadn’t changed in the years since I had seen a reading of it.

Grimke: It needs a dramaturg, but I don’t think I had as many problems with it as you did in general. I felt like the good outweighed some of the issues I had. and some of the things I had problems with, other people really liked. Plus, let’s not forget this was its first production. Plays normally change plenty after the first run.

Melissa: Yes, but it seems like she has a network of people–including the director, who I know is really smart in his approach to new plays–who should have influenced this, so I’m not sure why it didn’t evolve more.

Grimke: I don’t know. Learning to listen?

Melissa: Perhaps, it’s a skill to hone.

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(Stab Play):

Jane is a dramaturg

I’ll start by saying what’s in my pockets: it’s a hard time to write about art. I know artists who are so numb and terrified by our national moment that they can barely move, let alone create, and I know those who have set their jaws and said ‘this is our time,’ ready to use their skills to fight. What’s in my pockets, besides fear and dread, is that I’m wary and skeptical of the second group, skeptical that theater people have it in us to do anything but pretend to ourselves that we are vital, telling ourselves so in the echo chamber of our own tiny community. I wasn’t in a good place to see (Stab Play): and I admit it.

This was a (fully) staged reading of a work in progress. It takes bravery to put work out and ask honestly what people thought, and it’s important to remember that.

The work-in-progress  production of (Stab Play): was directed by Hannah Van Sciver, who continues to hone her skills and build her chops as director, learning the balance between risk and usefulness. Although some choices in this staged reading didn’t work (use of flashlights didn’t clearly delineate space, audience participation role was unclear) the performance knew what it was- development. It’s good to see this new generation of performers finding it’s voice and style.

It’s a heartening trend that young artists in our community create more roles for women. This performance offered a chance to see Minou Pourshariati as Bru. She’s subtle, interesting and present– almost incapable of being dishonest on stage. This is an actress to keep your eye on. However, the female characters in (Stab Play): feel more like capital F Female Characters than they do like people. There’s little in the play to tell us who these women are, why they care about getting recognition. Is Bru grieving over the death of her sister or just going through the motions? Why does Cass like Bru? Why are they friends? Their stilted interactions bring to mind the scenes in That Pretty Pretty, where the playwright puts conversations with his male friends into the mouths of his female characters.

More frustrating is the idea at the center of the script– that the (relative) success of a local artist is analogous to the reign of Caesar. If the script were self-aware about the fact that it’s characters take being featured on NPR as seriously as ruling an empire, it could make interesting commentary or enjoyable camp. Instead the story takes itself frustratingly seriously. In reality, the success of a Philadelphia artist (or the winner of a karaoke competition in a dive bar) does not matter to anyone except the very small group of people who choose to define themselves in the petty politics of mini empires. That’s an idea that is extremely relevant right now, both because it’s tribal thinking that got Trump elected and because inflated self-importance keeps art from being meaningful to non artists. But (Stab Play): is not laughing at how foolish it is to blow the local arts scene up to the proportion of the Roman Republic, it is, in fact, blowing it up to the proportion of the Roman Republic.

Which is not to say that a very small scale can’t be used to talk about very important things. As the play stands now, however, everything is at an intellectual or poetic arm’s length. Cass and Bru do not have human experiences that we can relate to, at least not on stage. We see them only afterwards, discussing in intellectual terms what it all means. As a result, we can only think that the play believes that what happens to them is not important because their friendship is important, or because there are emotional stakes in the events, but because who wins at karaoke is actually just that important.

In this dark moment, if artists want to be useful, the very worst thing we can be is myopic, which makes this  a hard story to get behind.

If you’re producing theater in Philadelphia, you are almost certainly enjoying a kind of privilege. That was always true. But now, being able to forget the threat that looms outside the theater door is a privilege that many people in your audience do not have. That means we have a responsibility to be aware of context.

This frustration with (Stab Play): after all, is less a problem with the play than something born of the urgent terror of the moment.  James Haro did not claim to be writing a political play, (Stab Play): was written before the election. But the context of the election amplifies every choice, including inadvertent ones. And this script elevates self-involvement at a time when self-involvement is literally dangerous. I have faith in the creators involved to reflect on that and I urge them to.