Uncle Vanya- Quintessence Theater Company

Jane

What was in your pockets?

 

Valancy

I’ve seen a few things at Quintessence and always have high hopes. I love the plays the choose. I also love Chekhov and was recently involved in a production of “Uncle Vanya” at another theatre — a different translation/adaptation.

 

Jane

I haven’t really seen Quintessence shows before. The only thing I have in my pockets right now is the discussion happening around the MarK Cofta review of this show, in which he says that the lack of ‘color blind casting’ is distracting. Did you read about this?

 

Valancy

 

I read the review and Alex Burns’ response to it and the question of “color blind” casting vs. “racially aware” casting.

 

Jane

It’s an interesting question, because I think both work. And I think that audiences can tell the difference. The production will give you a clue about whether race should be visible or invisible in the world of the play.

 

So, how did you experience the design?

 

Valancy

In terms of lights, there were two or three key moments that designer John Burkland chose to light as huge dramatic breaks from the rest of the action that struck me as discordant and not in keeping with the rest of the play. It’s far more effective if Yelena and Astrof kiss and you feel anyone could walk in at any moment, not that suddenly they’re on a different planet, separate from the rules and conventions of mere mortals. I found myself caring far less about their experience because I couldn’t relate to it.

 

Jane

I didn’t notice that, but it’s a good insight. Especially in a show about people who are trapped, and whose relationships offer no solace from that feeling of being trapped.

 

Valancy

Yes, and one of my continuing questions about “Uncle Vanya” is do these characters truly feel love, or are they seeking respite from the monotony of life? I always come back to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be left with the impression that this is a passion that would ever outlast the summer… it would offer another form of imprisonment.

 

Jane

That’s an important insight. And a sad one.

 

Valancy

One of Quintessence’s strengths is their use of original composition and music in their soundscape. Each scene break was punctuated by the workman, Yeffim’s, playing of jazz on the piano, composed by Randy Redd, which added to the melancholy mood of the production and gave one the sense of a passage of time. I also loved the understated realism of the birds chirping once the action began.

 

Jane

I liked the costume choices for Sonya. I think it’s such a romantic character that it’s easy to dress her as virginal and ethereal, not remembering that she’s a person who works with her hands. I thought the overalls reminded us that Sonya’s situation is tragic for class reasons. The doctor is never going to love her. When I’ve seen this show before, it’s always been with Sonyas whose natural beauty was elevated by the production. It’s still sad that her love will remain unrequited if her assessment of her own attractiveness is wrong, but it’s much sadder when the play chooses to believe what she says about herself, and present her as working class and plain.

 

Valancy

And she has that heartbreaking line about overhearing the woman at church say “She’s so kind; it’s a pity she’s so plain,” which the adaptor of the production I was in cut. It’s so much more tragic when you realize the rest of the world views her the way she sees herself. I agree that Sonya’s costume told us everything we needed to know about her situation and how hard she works to keep things going on the estate. It gave a nice contrast to Yelena and really highlighted how the arrival of the professor and his stylish wife shakes everything up.

 

I do think Quintessence could be more thoughtful about the way they approach costuming in general though; it often lacks a sense of an overall design concept. Christina Lorraine Bullard had the men dressed in suits that read as fairly period appropriate to Chekhov. We know it’s hot out, late summer, so seeing the men in three-piece suits immediately places them in another time. However, the women, particularly Sonya and Yelena, were wearing modern clothing, Sonya in denim overalls and Yelena in clingy, revealing summer dresses that one would wear today. It caused a conflict in time and place that shouldn’t have been present in the play, and took my mind out of it as I tried to place the when and where..

 

Jane

I think that’s a good point. The costumes didn’t really land in space and time. I’ve never been to the Keswick before, but now I understand what previous reviewers have loves about Quintessences’ season in this space. It’s really beautiful and decrepit. I really enjoyed the simplicity of this set. What did you think?

 

Valancy

Oh, that building is magnificent. I love coming through the inner lobby, with its Art Deco, crumbling elegance, on my way to the seating area. It becomes part of the theatrical experience.

 

I did really love the simplicity of the staging area and being able to see the furniture and props in the “moat” surrounding it, waiting to be used in future scenes. There were the usual problems with staging in the round… actors blocking each other while sitting at the table, etc… but it gave us the opportunity to feel we were part of the world, especially with Yelena’s porch swing in the aisle, surrounded by audience, and the piano in another aisle.

 

One thing I found problematic was the breaking of the fourth wall in the soliloquies. I am a personal fan of the fourth wall, particularly in Chekhov, where I think the audience should feel like they’re gaining admittance to the hidden thoughts of the characters without being seen… and the actors are engaging in what we called “public solitude” in acting school, which is so much more exciting than being addressed directly by an actor.

 

Jane

That’s funny, I didn’t feel good about the direct address, and now I see why. “Public Solitude” is a feature that belongs to the play. And breaking the fourth wall creates an ‘audience,’ that speakers might believe in, and therefore find some solace. It takes away from the stuffiness of the situation to know that they are being heard, when so much of this play is about not being heard and not having an outlet.

 

I know that you were in this play, so it must have been strange to see a very different production. What did you think about the acting choices?

 

Valancy

Everything was so different from the way we approached it in my production,  which is one of the things I really enjoyed about this Uncle Vanya. Yelena was truly out of her mind with boredom, which was a mixed bag; it created a sense of comedy in the beginning, because everyone else feels things so deeply and with such desperation and her face was such a beautiful blank that it was easy to see why everyone projected their desires onto her, but I felt it resulted in an absence of connection in subsequent scenes, particularly in the top of Act 2 when we see her alone with her husband, Serebraykov. She tells us she married him out of a sense of love, but unless there’s some love, or a sense of obligation, left in her, the audience is wondering why she bothers to stay with him at all. She’s more an angry teenager mouthing off to a parent, than a wife trapped by convention, especially in her modern, revealing clothing. There’s nothing I could see holding her there.

 

Jane

I see your point, but I did love Julia Frey in this role. I loved the way her face stayed impassive, but her hands were always shaking and fidgeting.

 

Valancy

Yes, Julia Frey certainly created a character in the first scene that I felt like watching, despite her lack of responsiveness to the passions around her, and that is certainly a quality that Yelena possesses. Dan Kern as the professor was spectacular. He seemed to inhabit the Chekhovian ideal, completely natural and professorial; I wanted to sit at his feet myself, just as his students did, and soak up his wisdom.

 

Jane

Yes, when the professor is charming but clueless I think it’s more tragic than when he’s played for laughs. I have to say I really enjoyed his scenes with Yelena, particularly his constant moaning and monologuing which drives her insane. She may have seemed like a teenager with her father, but for me, that worked. The tragic thing about their relationship is that it’s mismatched in terms of age. I believe that she might become resentful and petulant.

 

Valancy

I can see that. I think that’s why I love Chekhov so much; you could take one of his plays and always find new interpretations, new layers, new hidden thoughts. What a gift.

 

I also loved Jessica M. Johnson’s Sonya, particularly in the first half of the play, when her innocence and joy in the mundane details of life were most apparent. One of my favorite moments was the bread and cheese sharing scene in Act 2, when she is alone with Dr. Astrov, who was played with self conscious petulance by Kevin Bergen. I always love well-played silences on stage, when the characters seem to be living fully in each other’s company. I felt it was exactly what Chekhov had intended when he wrote the scene. I almost felt jealous we had missed that scene’s potential in my production, but I was too busy being thrilled as an audience member that they had found it.

 

Jane

I loved this Sonya, too. I think that Jessica M.Johnson played her with tragic buoyancy. I loved her physicality which bound her to the earth. She took up space and clomped around. I believed that she’d worked a farm all of her life.

 

Valancy

I agree. I think some things fell apart in the second half of the play. Emotion in Chekhov is a tricky balancing act, because you’re often dealing with characters who are terribly unhappy and who are even battling with suicidal feelings… but as unhappy as Sonya is at the end of the play, if the character indulges in feelings of self-pity or gives over to too much obvious emotion and feeling, the audience is then not as free to embrace that sorrow and pathos. We have to believe at the end of the play that Sonya is the strongest of them all and will truly endure and do what needs to be done to keep the estate going and make sure Uncle Vanya survives. I found myself doubting Sonya’s ability to survive the end of the play in this production, Again, it’s a tricky thing, and requires a really strong director to navigate it, particularly in the final scene, when Vanya and Sonya are all they have to cling to.

 

Jane

I also want to make a point of acknowledging Daniel Ison as Yeffim which is such a small part, but I found Ison really compelling. He was very present even if the character wasn’t influencing the action much.

 

Valancy

I agree he was very compelling.

 

Jane

So having acted in a different adaptation, what did you think of this translation?

 

Valancy

I liked the straightforwardness of this adaptation, but I think parts of Annie Baker’s adaptation are colloquially so modern and American that some of the acting and delivery came through as very casual and stood out as of our time and place, which made the obviously Russian setting seem out of place. I wonder what it would have been like had Alex Burns simply chosen to set it in 1990’s Burbank, California.

 

Jane

This gets into questions that we had with the production that was at Hedgerow last year, and with what Mark Cofta wrote about for the Broad Street Review. The play is either about Russia in 1897, or it’s about all time forever, or it’s got something to say about now.

 

I was one of the reviewers for that Hedgerow production, and I was frustrated with its lack of grounding in the past or message for our times. Cofta saw this play as wedging in a message about race where it didn’t belong.

 

I actually didn’t notice the race dimension in this production until the scene where Serebraykov announces that he plans to sell the property. And I really appreciated that moment of revelation. Throughout the show, the races of the actors didn’t really affect the way I was recieving the story. It felt like regular color-blind casting. But when Vanya loses his mind about having spent his whole life working to support Serebraykov, and Serebraykov’s relative cluelessness (why didn’t you give yourself a raise?) I realized that it was a strong choice to put black actors into the roles of Vanya and Sonya.

 

Valancy

Alex Burns’ response to Mark Cofta made the distinction between “color blind,” which this was not, and “racially aware” and I think if Serebryakov hadn’t been Sonya’s father or hadn’t been white, it would have been a stronger, clearer choice. Of course, for that moment when Serebraykov reveals he’s selling the estate to work, he had to be white and privileged. Until I read Burns’ written response, I wasn’t sure how conscious and intentional the choice was though… something I wouldn’t have thought about had Sonya, Vanya and Maria not been related to one another, and Yeffim, the other black actor, not been a laborer. I thought back to the production of The Cherry Orchard I recently saw in New York, where the ex-serfs turned land-owners were African- American and it felt like a definite directorial choice.There was no question that race and background played a role in how the other characters viewed them.  It would have been less confusing in this production of “Uncle Vanya” if there had been less of a familial divide, because I don’t think the choice added to the understanding of this particular production. I loved the diversity of the production, but I wasn’t sure about the clarity of Alex Burns’ statement.

 

Jane

I guess we are talking more about directing than the script.

 

Valancy

Yes; I think it all comes down to the vision of the director. At intermission, I turned to you and expressed complete faith in the production and marveled at some of those beautiful moments my production had lacked, but I felt some of it fell apart in the second half of the production. Chekhov’s Act 3 is always the most difficult because it’s when it all comes to a head and the gun comes out; if you miss the mark, or the emotion doesn’t seem particularly well-earned, the audience checks out.

And by having Sonya face out during a large portion of that dramatic “selling the estate” scene, I was distracted. It felt unreasonable that everyone seemed to notice her discontent and sorrow, even Yeffim the workman, but no one mentioned it. I think the power of that scene as written is that everyone is too wrapped up in their own lives and concerns to see the suffering of anyone else around them. It’s the tragedy and the comedy of Chekhov.

 

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So Low Quick Takes- A Shoe Full of Wet Sand

Maura and Smirk are directors

 

Smirk

What was in your pockets going into A Shoe Full of Wet Sand?

 

Maura  

Well, I know Amanda from her being in a workshop of a Fringe show I directed. And I’m friends with Kristen Bailey through Applied Mechanics.  Plus Kristen had told me a little about the show, namely that Amanda had become interested in the brain science behind trauma. How about you?

 

Smirk

I went to school with Amanda and have worked on shows with her. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve seen her perform so I went in very optimistic

 

Maura

Shall we start with script/content then?  I think it is hard to separate script from performance, since Amanda created it, though.

 

Smirk

Agreed. There was a lot of audience interaction which leads me to believe we may have had totally different experiences.

 

Maura

Yes, I’m interested in that.  I felt like when I went we segued very gracefully from a lot of open-ended audience interaction into a scripted show. I was impressed by the way Amanda accomplished that.

 

Smirk

Yes! It was smooth I agree.  I liked the repetition of the coloring in of the brain and what each part represented.  I believed it was a part of this character’s daily routine

 

Maura

Me too. It was so satisfying when she snapped at herself “I’m way ahead of you.”  Perhaps I wanted too much of a play, but I’d say that one of my only critiques would be that I wished the brain map had been wrapped in a little more at the end.  I felt like we left it behind and I wasn’t sure why.

 

This is perhaps more design but I also LOVED the hummed song/sound that triggered the brain map coloring. It is still stuck in my head.

 

Smirk

100% I wanted more of the map. And yes to the sounds. It was very thoughtful.  I wanted to know more about the “why now?” It seemed very habitual and if we’re transient imaginary friends, why do we get it all now? I wanted so desperately for something to have to force her upstairs.

 

Maura

I think in general there was something so compelling for me watching a woman navigate her own mind and trauma.

 

Smirk

Not like the “close call” cuz she ordered takeout.

 

Maura

Ah, that’s a good point.

 

Smirk

I did care for her wellbeing and was anxious for her to uncover what brought her to this point.

 

Maura

I did get the sense that exploring and rehashing this stuff is something she does on the daily. But I agree with you that it seemed like it was our presence that started the show, which didn’t quite work with our casting as imaginary friends.

 

Smirk

Right! Any more thoughts on the script?

 

Maura

I felt like the ending was abrupt.

 

Smirk

Yes It was more of a day-in-the-life then a complete one act. I need the sequel. I like Mercy.

 

Maura

Yes!  I need the sequel too!  I suppose I felt like the “return to nature” stuff came a little out of left field for me — it wasn’t totally undeserved, but the animals and strained relationship with technology felt like an undercurrent, and then suddenly it was the focus of the ending.

 

That shift into back to nature felt like the beginning of sort of a second act and I was like “ok, ok, let’s go with this” and then it was over.

 

Smirk

Right!

 

Maura

The part where she talked about mental health treatment as not having a finish line really struck me.  The concept that you can “get better” mentally and emotionally is so harmful, so seeing it specifically rejected in a piece was beautiful to me.

 

Smirk

Yes!  

 

Maura

I think it might be useful to segue into Amanda’s performance here? It was you saying “I like Mercy” that made me think of it.  She is just such a compelling performer. I was so invested in this person, and she navigated so many style and tone changes in this completely graceful way.

 

I also was just so pleased that she avoided the sort of “harsh edges” stereotype of a military woman/person dealing with PTSD. That stereotype is a thing right? Do you know what I mean?

 

Smirk

Most definitely. The immediate association with PTSD is military.  I’ve definitely heard ignorant people say, “you can’t have PTSD if you didn’t serve.”

 

Maura

Ughhhh. WRONG.

 

Smirk

That just comes from only hearing the term when speaking about a serviceperson. It isn’t called post-traumatic military disorder.

 

But we digress.

 

I also can’t recall a character that Amanda has played like this, and it was nice to experience her growth.  I was very engrossed by her.

 

Let’s talk about the lights and sound

 

Maura

I mean, I loved the basement. I thought the atmosphere was great, the trash art was great, the beer bottles were alarming.

 

I loved the completely scattered puzzle, and the use of the couch as ersatz stage. For me, one of the most transporting house play environments I’ve seen.

 

Smirk

Yeah! I must say I have a thing about basements so I had to relax and ‘Yes, and…” it out haha! but it was cozy and other-worldly like a bunker we could lose time in.

 

Maura

The lights were a part of that, I think, too.

 

Smirk

The puzzles and random items/pseudo-hoarding were really neat and helped elude to a disruption in the brain waves.

 

Maura

Yes! I was with someone who really loved the addition of the word puzzles on the vent.

 

Smirk

Coping mechanisms.

 

Maura

Yes, coping mechanisms, like the idea that one of the pieces of being imbalanced or suffering trauma is actually boredom, being stuck inside your own head. Oh, also — the use of the old toaster oven as laptop. Genius.

 

Smirk

Mmmm! Forgot that one! Yes! Loved it.

 

Maura

That felt novel to me, the focus on boredom.

 

Smirk

And I liked how the title was incorporated too. Quick sand.

 

Maura

Me too, I usually get twitchy when the Title of the Play is Stated, but this felt so effortless and natural.  I mean and also, that idea was heartbreaking, and so evocative. What if you felt like you carried the quicksand with you, in your very shoes? Oh man.

 

Smirk

Agreed.

 

Maura

So actually my least favorite design element, other than the humming, was sound. I didn’t entirely dramaturgically buy the speaker.  It was so obvious and on the stairs. Everything else was so atmospheric and in a way the speaker felt like the inside of her brain, so I wish it had been hidden or incorporated a little better.

 

Also to have the same speaker be the outside world/delivery person and the inside of her brain took me a tiny bit out of the play because I kept imagining someone else was there.

 

Solow shows naturally have limited resources so I don’t wanna be a jackass about it.

 

Smirk

I wasn’t a fan of it there either, but I figured there were so many nooks and crannies that if they hadn’t wanted it seen it could’ve easily gone above our heads or been hidden.

 

Maura

So why did they want it seen? Do you have any ideas?

 

Smirk

Now I’m not as certain as I was because you’re right, it was her thoughts, her alarm clock and the delivery guy. I would’ve really bought if she picked it to be just one and acknowledged it every time it made sound.

 

The more obvious remedy would have been to hide it so that all sound can come out of the same speaker.

 

Maura

Exactly. I could have also dug a speaker outside of the door for the delivery guy, since those lines were so clearly delineated content-wise.

 

I do think the nature reveal at the end was pretty great, though. For limited resources it was a really nice effect. And the birdsong absolutely contributed.

 

Smirk

There was a lot of thought and depth that went into creating the space that I think was immensely effective.

 

Maura

Which I think in part was Kristen — Amanda was saying after the show that she really encouraged the space being a hyper detailed mess.

 

Smirk

And it was the proper length. Though it did leave me wanting more and worrying for Mercy. It was an enjoyable piece with a subtle delivery for a large message.

 

Maura

It’s so hard to know with a piece like this what is director and what is performer/creator, but I do think Kristen must have had a lot to do with the tightness of conceit and transitions.

I thought it could have gone on for longer, but I am always glad to see someone do just the material they have rather than artificially stretching it. So maybe you’re right and just SEQUEL!

 

How are you doing Mercy? We care about you!

 

Smirk

Yes!

 

Maura

Also she as director clearly left space for a lot of authenticity and discovery, which is always so rad to see.

 

Smirk

When the actor knows what to do with that allowance, which Amanda did. Sometimes when you give an inch they take a mile…

 

Maura

Yes, that is a true, true thing you say.

 

Smirk

I think overall the content was very inclusive and relatable on the most basic level of self care.

 

Maura

Agreed. And also I am always just so freaking happy when a woman creates a complex, meaty role for herself. Beyond that — when someone who has thus far done one role in the wider text-based play universe starts to make their own stories, their own worlds.

 

Smirk

Do you think it helped or healed at all?

 

Maura

Did it help/heal me a little? Definitely. Did it help/heal Mercy? I’m not sure. And I guess I kind of like being not sure of the efficacy of her rituals and explorations. It is uncomfortable, though. Did you?

 

Smirk

Nicely put. It didn’t help or heal me, but I did leave worried for Mercy and empathetic.

So Low Quick Take- Weights and Measures

Sarah Grimke is an art maker and administrator

JG is an actor and deviser

Sarah Grimke

Want to start this love fest with pockets? I’m a fan of Kennedy’s work and her as a human. I’d also read a version of this script before. I went in wanting to like it.

 

JG

I came to Weights and Measures after a good/sweltering day. I’m a fan of  Kennedy’s work and will be working on future productions of said piece. So yeah, I went in wanting to like it too.

 

Sarah Grimke

One of my favorite trademarks of Kennedy’s work is that she always finds these subjects that would otherwise come across as boring and turns them into these amazing backdrops to such compelling storytelling. In this case it was the definitions of our units of measurement.

 

JG

The magnitude in the mundane, I hear you.

 

Sarah Grimke

To set the scene, this was a one woman show in the artist’s West Philly row home. Just her acting and her husband on guitar giving you a live soundtrack. She played 5 characters. It was part of SolowFest (shout out to SolowFest!)

 

JG

Solow!!!

The transitions between each character were, nuanced, and precise.

 

Sarah Grimke

A very physical performance. I never doubted which character she was playing in each moment Minimal costume/prop assistance. It was really just great old-fashioned character acting. Kennedy is one of the leading character actors in Philly in my book. She transforms vocally, and physically so cleanly and completely. It’s amazing to watch.

 

JG

Seconded. I like that the costume/prop design was so minimal in a balance to the density of the piece. Also the props that were used  held a purpose to more than one character, thus filling out the story, even more.

 

Sarah Grimke

Yes, it was all so thought out and smart. I loved the moment where the one character is upset and wants a cigarette and Kennedy had preset a pack of cigarettes on the floor in the audience. So, the character was able to ask to bum one. Little surprises like that kept it so interesting.

 

JG

Yes, another of those moments with the light switch for the metre. She had two different characters who were consistently in contact with the audience. It just felt easy to be there with her.

 

Sarah Grimke

It was all pleasant interaction. I hate audience participation that is supposed to humiliate or make the audience nervous. This felt like the audience participation was all about helping the characters in little kind ways. I also really liked that this show made you think.

 

JG

Oh yeah, uncovering the mystery behind mass. It’s also educational and entertaining.The beats of the show are carefully “measured” and played by Jeremy Prouty which makes the piece sing.

 

Sarah Grimke

Ugh I’m the worst for not using his name earlier. Sorry Jeremy! He’s such a talented musician and somehow disappears on stage even though he is right in front of you scoring everything.

 

JG

It’s all in the timing… speaking of, you know I’m still unpacking the concepts of time that were introduced in the piece.

 

Sarah Grimke

Yes! I loved that they used a metronome for certain sound effects. Which NO SPOILER but the idea of time and measuring time is central to the piece

 

JG

Ahhhh, I love it so much and Kennedy’s brain too! Sorry not sorry for gushing. Weights and Measures is talking about important things and even if you can’t wrap your entire noodle around it all, you’ll be glad you experienced it.

 

Sarah Grimke

I loved this piece and I’m so excited it’s continuing. Kennedy is going to work to turn it into a 3 actor show, right?

 

JG

Yes, she is. But there is still one more chance to see it in its current form tonight!

 

Sarah Grimke

Yes!!! People should never miss a Transmissions Theatre (Kennedy and Jeremy) show. EVER. In general, it was just amazing story telling. Simple tools used perfectly.

 

So Low Quick Take- Deep Space Love Song

JG is a philly based actrist and human being

Let’s get down to it. Tolva recently caught my eye at an event at L’Etage. Also I’m a fan of the work Sam and JD Stokely’s collective SUPERobject is doing. I was in a good mood and had walked two miles from another SoLow Fest piece.
Deep Space Love Song by Tolva is a journey takes you down into a basement, on a technicolor pathway and then out into the expanse of the universe. It turns you on, confuses you, questions, exposes, and spits you back out into a puddle on the floor. But does this love resolve, even when you have closure, once you’ve had love inside of you and all around, is it ever really over?
The lighting is simple, intimate, like a doorway is barely ajar on another dimension. The projections are well used. The soundscape was composed almost entirely live by Tolva (our guide on this journey) is ethereal and haunting. The costumes are elegant from stunning sequins, to luxurious crushed velvet, the shoes were exquisite but I felt the balance of their height at times, while yes creating a statuesque silhouette, did not seem as comfortable as I would like. Perhaps shedding both those shoes and sequins allows for greater exploration in physicality as one embraces the body.
The direction was simple, clear lines and pivots, great builds of smoldering intensity. Moments of audience interaction were thoughtful and intimate. Love is a touchy subject. The transitions between voice and music could be a little smoother though. I also wanted to see Tolva’s electric eyes more, more, more.
I’m on this kick about exploring time and what it means. It was great to hear the question raised thoughtfully. I’m excited to see where this piece goes in the future.
Cheers!

The Art of Losing- The Greenfield Collective (SoLow)

Maura is a director

JG is a deviser and performer 

Maura

So, empty thine pockets.

 

JG

I came to the play after a relaxed day in a pretty good mood.  I enjoy the folks at Greenfield that made this piece possible.

 

Maura Krause

I am working with Hannah Van Sciver and the Greenfield Collective on a Fringe show, and am on their advisory board. I also came in excited about Christine Freije as a director. Also relevant is that I am extremely dubious about projections as a rule.

 

JG

As a final draft of a play I was disappointed, but viewed as a work in progress WIP I would say there were some interesting things happening.

 

Maura

Woo, going right in!

I would concur that the piece felt more like a work-in-progress on a couple of levels, but let’s start with script?

I think Hannah is a graceful writer, and the script definitely flowed. It felt conversational in a good way.

I’m not sure that the structure was entirely there, despite the North Star and litany of names at the beginning and end. I also think that the script never chose whether it want to be hyper-personal to this group of makers, or whether it wanted to go more general in order to invite in the audience.

For me, it hovered in between those two, and I would have loved to have a choice in either direction. Either to get more specifics on this person we are watching, more detailed storytelling about her, OR to build in more chances for audience reflection and engagement.

 

JG

Yes. There was some interesting disjunction happening. The script would dive just enough into an experience and then our narrator would find herself at a loss, which I liked, this device allowed just enough personal connection and psychic space for the audience. I was like sweet I empathize with some of these experiences in my own way. I’m excited to see how this all comes back around.

 

Maura

YES I really liked the device of the narrator getting lost in what she was saying. I appreciated and empathized with that so much. I’d say that and the mom dancing is what drew me into her.

 

JG

But then a whole track developed that frankly made me feel alienated as my feelings surrounding this perceived universal loss are completely other than what the makers determined and it really pulled me out. By the time we wandered back into personal experience and unspecified loss. My connection to the piece was lost. As for the litany of names, I would say I understood that to be people as beacons called upon as needed to pull oneself  back to the surface when drowning.

 

Maura Krause

Oh, I understood the names to be names of loved ones lost.

Like “Smoky” I was like oh that’s a pet.

 

JG

Huh yeah I could see that too, I feel like that could go either way.

 

Maura

Can you say more about the track that alienated you?

 

JG

It’s the whole Hillary lost the election part it could have been food for a separate piece. I understand that it definitely touched some people in the room in a way but my feelings about how the election played out are not ones of loss, but awakening to an unrest that has been boiling under the surface of American/Eurocentric culture for some time… to give that “loss” so much sway and completion just pulled me out.

 

Maura

I think it is a really important and good point that Hilary losing the election was treated as a universal loss, when it did not function that way for everyone.

I’m also just tired of hearing people tell me about what they felt on the night of November 8th, haven’t we done that already? But maybe that’s more of my salty pocket lint.

 

JG

I did connect to familial memory the saving of letters, the time of my life given over to misogyny. Also dancing!!! In fact I wanted more dancing.

 

Maura Krause

Yeah, I also connected to the saving of letters and feeling weird residual fondness for people that treated me badly. I liked that.

I wish the Keep/Lose boxes had been more utilized — but maybe that is getting into Design/Direction? Are you ready for that?

 

JG

I felt like there were several visual elements of design at play. That’s just it there was so much when really I just wanted the production to focus its attention on one or two. I agree only have as many boxes as you’re going to actually use.

We were dealing in projection, string, wall art installation. and this human body in motion. The projection/use of string were lacking in specificity and missed opportunities.  But the wall art installation and Emily were consistently exciting to me.

 

Maura Krause

I’ll jump on design because I agree. I loved the impulse towards the string and loved being asked to hold a ball of it, but I wanted that language to go further.

I thought the projections were clunky and unnecessary — the graininess of the North Star image at the end did not correspond with the loveliness of the text we hear when our eyes were closed, and so to open our eyes to it snapped me right out of the headspace I had started to work my way into. The best moment with the projections was the arrow at the brother’s head, but that felt like it was from a different play almost.

And wall art installation! I was so curious about that and I felt like it was never referenced or used. Visually the wall art had a dialogue with the boxes for me and I was excited to learn more, but we didn’t, really.

I thought the rudimentary lighting was used quite well, and I think we’ve addressed that we both liked the soundscape, especially the harsh flat tone that hit us sometimes.

 

JG

Yes I agree with you on that. The use of water was also interesting but was again felt disjointed. That said. Emily had us write down an object of loss something lost or too  lose and when asked to put that into the pool of consciousness I was ready and it felt good.

 

Maura

Yeah, the water bucket was cool. I liked that she poured water on her hands and it made a nice real plinking sound.

I think directing-wise Christine really kept it moving, and helped construct a compelling character. There were some moments where Emily had her back to us that I really loved. All of the choices to deny us standard storytelling were enjoyable and evocative for me.

I was bummed that more movement sequences like the creepy boyfriend didn’t happen — I was affected by that movement and I wished I had seen more of that physically embodied language of loss and confusion.

 

JG

A lot of that happened on the floor and from the second row and was difficult to see, by the way.

 

Maura

I think drection  is essentially what we were saying about design — there were just a few too many languages/gestures happening. When the show zeroed in on Emily, her body, her emotions, I was into it. When we were fiddling with boxes to find props or dealing with projections I found myself getting pulled out of the play.

I will say that a lot of people got really choked up by the piece, like I saw audience members misting up or sniffling, so it could just be that I’m dead inside. Or I was the night I saw the show, anyway!

Let’s make sure we take a moment to say Emily is a compelling and soulful performer, by the way — anything else you want to say on acting?

 

JG

Seconded. She also has an alluring vocal quality.

 

Maura

I liked when she made eye contact, that made me feel connected despite some of the distractions.

Ok, think I would summarize the experience this way:

The show felt like it was trying out too many things, all of which were absolutely  worthy, but nothing got delved into fully. I felt like the show never completely explored any of its elements. That is why it felt like a work-in-progress, I think, and I would be very interested to see a more full version, because the topic and the impulses were strong.

And in general, I like these three artists a lot, and I would want to see more work from them. It is important to make, to just make things to learn about yourself as an artist, and so I support this piece and hope they learned new things from it.

 

JG

I’d say that is pretty succinct. Here’s to making it!

 

Maura

Yes! Here’s to being vulnerable and making stuff!

 

SoLow Quick Take- Bridge to Somewhere

JG is a devisor

Pockets-I’m a fan of Mira Treatman and have had the honor of working with her on another piece.
Bridge to Somewhere takes a group on a journey across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge it is an exploration of awareness, and the layers of utility, history, emotion, and perspective that engages the senses. Our tour guide leads us from Philly to Camden stopping now and then to share bits of history of the site and of personal experience, at other times she stops to just to let ones own experience inform the journey. These moments for me felt like a relief, because personally I feel that so much of design in American culture focuses on a narrow lens.
Bridge is also a shared experience and so fell free to ask questions and share your own experience, and be present. Be prepared for the weather, hydrate. Bridge to Somewhere moves at a nice clip. Enjoy!

How to Use a Knife- InterAct Theater

Photo by Kate Raines

Plotz is a clown. With a degree. 

Jane is a director and new-play dramaturg. 

Plotz

I know you’re, like rearing to go.

 

Jane

I am. But we need to empty our pockets first.

 

Plotz

I had a close friend on the design team. And I am passionate about the NNPN rolling premieres program. I think it is really vital to supporting new plays.

 

Jane

I don’t know anyone personally at InterAct but I’m invested in it as a place. I think it’s consistently the most inclusive established theater, and it does the most new plays. And it makes a place for Ghostlight project and really commits to the goals of that project.

 

Plotz

And it hosted our Awards.

 

Jane

That’s right. It hosted the Bonaly Awards. I think the fact that InterAct has it’s heart and intentions in the right place and takes things like inclusivity seriously means that it’s so much more disappointing when it fails.

 

Plotz

Like Straight White Men.

 

Jane

Yeah, I guess Straight White Men is in my pockets, too. That production really upset me.

 

Plotz

I know we usually start by talking about design, but I think that it’ll make more sense if we talk about the script, first. I think we agree that this script is upsetting. 

 

Jane

Completely. For a number of reasons. To me, this play exemplifies why non white, non male voices need to be given the opportunity to tell their own stories. Because when someone else speaks for us, this is what happens. In many ways How To Use A Knife is a pile of the standard components of white-guy plays. A sadsack tragic hero who says fuck a lot. Women and people of color as props in that guy’s life.

 

Plotz

Fast talking mametesque dialogue so the comedy is in the aggression and speed and not what people are saying. That’s not a style I love. It sidesteps all other truth for the one truth that being mean fast is kind of funny. 

 

Jane

Ugh. Yes. Both the structure and the content of this play are as boring as they are obnoxious.

 

Plotz

Do you want to take that apart? What bothers you about the structure?

 

Jane

Well, like you, I hate that aggression-as-comedy thing. Especially when it’s the same old boring string of misogynist insults. Your sister is hot. I want to fuck your sister. Women don’t want to fuck you. Etc. And to be clear, Knife does not explore the toxic masculinity that is behind this kind of banter, or what pushes characters to speak that way, or what effects it has on them. It’s just ha-ha he said “fuck.”

 

Plotz

I think what’s particularly unlikable about this script though, is that it feels like version 2.0 of that. Like the writer had a feminist girlfriend and she worked on him and now he’s enlightened so no one says faggot or cunt. You know, it’s within contemporary standards of inappropriate. LaBute Lite.

 

Jane

Right and the main character says “I hate white people,” which I assume is also meant to signal that this white guy writer knows that he’s a white guy. And Steve says “why would you assume that I have a goat, that’s racist?” That kind of thing. 

 

Plotz

And they’re Guatemalan, not Mexican. This whole play is someone’s first year in college. I know the difference between Rwanda and Uganda, give me a cookie. It’s very proud of how not racist and sexist it is. But this is content.

 

Jane

Right. Structure. I mean, I feel that I just have to say that this play is not about anything. It doesn’t offer a clear theme. The characters- even the one who is sort of human- do not have arcs. There is constant reference to big ideas (race, violence, equality of opportunity, the American Dream, guilt) but the play has nothing comprehensive to say about any of them. For a play with no new idea to offer, it’s very self important.

 

Plotz

I don’t think we can wait any longer to talk about the characters. First, the Guatemalans.

 

Jane

They are literally talking props! What do they want, do, contribute, shed light on? What?! They just sit there making those three burgers over and over again.

 

Plotz

Well, we do find out that Miguel has kids and can’t afford to be deported.

 

Jane

It’s so thin. And Miguel has no agency. He doesn’t make choices. He doesn’t feel feelings. Carlos mostly gets to sit around being persecuted by racists, but his only true action is implied and off stage. And feels unmotivated. What he does is a plot point, not the motivated action of a human person. And then “Steve.”

 

Plotz

Ha ha. His name is “Steve.” Get it? It’s funny because it’s an American name.

 

Jane

Steve the Magical Negro.

 

Plotz

That’s a pretty serious thing to say. You want to back that up?

 

Jane

I’m happy to. I think this character meets all the requirements of a magical negro. 1. He’s at a social disadvantage- he’s just a lowly dishwasher. 2. He appears to help the white protagonist. Certainly this is George’s play. George is the anti hero. And his rage is consuming him. Here’s the mysterious silent black man to help him. And Steve’s so happy to have a friend. George is his “first friend” they are “brothers.” Why? What is George offering?

 

Plotz

He’s teaching him to cook.

 

Jane

Yes. They are truly brothers. Lucky Steve.

And finally, he’s magical. He gives George a standard meditation practice.

 

Plotz

The fastest acting meditation I’ve ever seen!

 

Jane

Yes, amazing, and he only has to do it for a few seconds and he’s transformed.

 

Plotz

We are just being petty now.

 

Jane

True.

 

Plotz

Then he says Steve is an “African Ninja.”

 

Jane

African Ninja, Magical Negro. Six of one, half dozen of the other. But George is a good white person, because he cares about the difference between West Africa and Uganda. Not like Michael, who seems to exist in the play only to show that the playwright knows what a *bad* white person looks like. “Ha ha. Those white people.”

Just like his character, the playwright thinks he can walk up to poc, put an arm around them and say “I hate white people.” Meanwhile he’s doing exactly exactly the shitty thing that white people do, which is to think that we can speak for poc, all while patting ourselves on the back for ennobling them.

 

Plotz

Don’t hold back now.

 

Jane

Well it makes me really mad. This play is actually an amazing opportunity. A kitchen is a fraught place where race, masculinity, exhaustion and alcoholism collide. To actually explore those things could be amazing. Instead, he makes it about the white guy, and draws everyone else even more thinly than the main character whom he clearly expects us to identify and sympathize with.

 

Plotz

I want to add that the female character is similarly one dimensional.

 

Jane

But she’s so “strong.”

 

Plotz

Yep. Pretty strong. When she gets harassed in a room full of men she says “please stop sexually harassing me.”

 

Jane

Pretty true to my experience.

 

Plotz

I mean. Come on.

I guess I should be grateful that her three scenes were in there. Do you want to say anything else about this script?

 

Jane

Yeah, but I’m not sure how to put it. I feel that the play has a lot of emotional indicators, but not a lot of emotional content.

 

Plotz

What do you mean?

 

Jane

I mean that people talk about things that should make you feel feelings- like grotesque violence or terrible accidents, or a wife and children at home. But the characters themselves do not feel feelings. I’m particularly thinking about what amounts to a trauma-porn dick measuring contest that George and Steve have where they both describe things that are terrible and the more terrible story wins.

 

Plotz

Shout out to descriptions of rape of their women as an excuse for men’s violence! Always good to have those.

 

Jane

Yes, please surprise me with descriptions of rape! I mean, actually, I’d be willing to take it if I thought it meant anything to the characters. But both of the main characters are by design not able to feel (unless “drunk” counts as a feeling) and the other characters are too one-dimensional to feel. That makes everything that happens pretty low stakes. Why should I care that this friendship falls apart or is betrayed? Saying “we are brothers” does not create stakes for the relationship if nothing human happens to them. What kind of friendship was it, anyway? No one changed or learned anything or reflected on anything. No one felt an emotional attachment to the other.

 

Plotz

There is actually a line where the busboy character…

 

Jane

The writer.

 

Plotz

Of course.

 

Jane

Note to writers. Stop writing about writers. Your thinly veiled self glorification is too thin and not enough veil. But you were saying?

 

Plotz

Jack, he says “I want to right about something real and true, not bullshit like families or girlfriends. Something real.”

 

Jane

Oh god, you’re right!

 

Plotz

So I assume this is Will Snider making sure we get the point that he isn’t wasting time with wishy-washy human connection and girly shit that nobody cares about. This play is about Important Ideas.

 

Jane

This script makes me so angry in so many ways. But the biggest way is that it has no idea how un-self aware it is.

 

Plotz

That’s what ‘self aware’ means.

 

Jane

You know what I mean. It’s bad enough when LaBute or Mamet or somebody just ignores any experience other than his own. But this guy is breaking his arm patting himself on the back about how inclusive and enlightened he is, and that makes it so much worse.

I wish I could see this play written by someone who has been Carlos. Or who has been Etienne. But if you’re fucking Jack the busboy, be Jack the busboy. Bring us into the world of toxic masculinity. Talk about how hierarchy is shitty and hurtful (or fucking transformative if that’s what you think. Educate me. I’ve never been in an all-male environment.) If you’re intimidated by Spanish speakers, figure that out. If someone being attracted to  your sister is an insult to you, figure out why. First, look at your own life and see what it does to you, reflect on it, then share your own experience. Quit cramming your Big Ideas into other people’s mouths.

 

Plotz

That’s the thing though. That’s what the play does. It uses, for example the Rwandan Genocide as a romantic way to reflect on white guy problems. Or fear of the INS. Everything is not yours.

 

Jane

Everything is not yours. And thinking it is makes you the opposite of who you think you are.

 

Plotz

Can we talk about this production now?

 

Jane

I think so.

 

Plotz

I want to talk about these actors. They were amazing. It made me embarrassed for them. They were so above what they had to do.

 

Jane

I agree. Lindsay Smiling is so talented. And he carried that role with depth and dignity that it did not have.

 

Plotz

Smiling made excellent use of his body to tell a story that wasn’t in the words. He was masterful with small movements.

 

Jane

I also think that J Hernandez did an amazing job of transcending the material. What he had was even harder to deal with. His arc was so thin, and he played the role with so much nuance. I found him the only character that I could actually emotionally connect with. I don’t know how he pulled depth, and the levels out of that, but he really did.

 

Plotz

Well and they were just trapped over there with, as you said, the same three burgers to make. He had to keep testing the stock during what was supposed to be a rush. There just was not enough business for them to keep busy. But both Hernandez and Angel Sigala were able to keep moving and give an impression of motivated action. Those actors also used movement well to beef up their relationship and make their world more real.

 

Jered McLenigan did exactly what his role required. I think that shows professionalism. He did his best to keep Michael out of vaudeville territory.

 

Jane

I would say the same about Trevor William Fayle and Maria Konstantindis. Terrible parts, strong actors. What did you think about Scott Greer?

 

Plotz

I think that he is a fantastic actor, and that this part was like chewing spent gum. There was just nothing to hold onto. And while the actors in smaller parts worked to wrest something human out of cardboard cutouts, he was left with the challenge of staying compelling with a very boring character for an hour and a half. I think he achieved that.

 

Jane

I agree. I don’t see how he could have done it better.

 

Plotz

I also want to shout out to Natalia de la Torre’s costumes.

 

Jane

She’s great.

 

Plotz

The detail of George’s worn uniform, open at the throat and that big Navy peacoat told his story immediately. De la Torre’s work is so understated. She has a deft hand for telling a story and not letting on that she’s telling the story. I love how Kim’s costumes got slightly less businesslike every time she appeared. There was no character arc for her in the play, but de la Torre snuck in a story about the toll the case might be taking on her, how it might be affecting her life outside this kitchen.

 

Jane

Stage management was on point. Those transitions were beautifully quick. And well directed, too. The pace was incredible. Seth Rozin did a great job of keeping it moving. And the kitchen didn’t offer much in terms of varying the blocking, but I never got bored. Can we talk about the set yet?

 

Plotz

First let me say that Robin Stamey built a great moment with those after-hours lights. The swinging lamp over the knife sharpener was really strong.

 

And I didn’t put this in my pockets, but I should have. I really, really hate hyper realistic sets.

 

Jane

Why?

 

Plotz

Because they invite you to look for mistakes. In cinema, that doesn’t happen, the realistic set just fades into the background as the camera directs your eye. But in theater, as soon as you’ve tried to approximate reality on stage, you’re begging the audience to look for places where it “doesn’t look real.”

 

Jane

That definitely happened. I was thinking that there wasn’t enough water in the mop bucket, I was distracted by the lack of sound and steam in the kitchen.

 

Plotz

And GLOVES. Oh my god, most unhygienic kitchen ever. So much hair touching then food touching.

 

Jane

I see what you mean. I would care about that less if the other details weren’t so realistic.

 

Plotz

The seams in the brickwork, how little stuff was in the kitchen. It becomes very distracting. Whereas if you suggest a kitchen, you give the imagination permission to fill in the gaps, and then it does.

 

Jane

I see.

 

Plotz

It’s just not theatrical. It’s cinematic. And it will never be cinematic enough.

 

Jane

I was distracted by tallying up how much each thing would cost. Half my brain was in Home Depot and then writing grants.

 

Plotz

That might be specific to you.

 

Jane

I concede that.

 

But it does bring me back to my larger issue, and I’m reluctant to say this because I really do believe in InterAct. It supports so many young artists. It’s relationship with NNPN makes sure that so many new plays get developed and seen. And Seth Rozin as an artistic director makes space for feedback and commentary. I feel that he keeps his door pretty open, especially compared to other artistic directors in the city.

 

Plotz

But…

 

Jane

But it also makes a lot of this kind of misstep. The same misstep the play makes. Doing something that it feels is inclusive and important, but is actually the opposite. Straight White Men was that, Three Christs of Manhattan was that. This was that. For a theater that is dedicated to inclusivity, I don’t think it goes deep enough when choosing the work. I don’t know what kind of process is happening when the work gets chosen.

 

Plotz

I have heard (secondhand) that they try to get diverse people on their reading committee, so…

 

Jane

So that’s good. But how does this stuff get by?

 

Plotz

Well they did also have Grounded and You for Me AND Marcus and Emma this year. So that’s two women directors and one director of color.

 

Jane

You’re right. But can we agree that How to Use a Knife isn’t the best use of resources when you’re trying to amplify diverse voices? This play used a lot of resources. And for what? 

 

Plotz

I don’t know. I don’t like the script, but it did give work to a number of poc.

 

Jane

And a lady.

 

Plotz

It’s complicated. I’d rather have this than that busboy play you were talking about.

 

Jane

I’d rather have neither. I’d rather have Carlos’ play. Or Etienne’s. Or Miguel’s.

 

Plotz

Can we say that we’re getting there?

 

Jane

I hope so.