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.