In Our Pockets

Christine

I’ve worked with Charlotte Northeast before and I am a really big fan of her work. I was a little flustered coming into the show, because I was running late. I knew almost nothing about the historical Brownings. How about you?

Elias 

I worked directly on this production and am close friends with a number of the Orbiters. This past week I’d also been sleeping poorly and, on the day, was in a rush from staying late at work, and I also felt a bit crowded in the seating there. I also know almost nothing about the historic Brownings.
The Take-Away 

  • Great performances, very funny, fast-paced script

  • Strong, character-bolstering props and costume design

  • Sensitive and smart exploration of a complex subject and relationship

 

Design

Christine

Design-wise, I was most struck by the costumes by Marie Chiment. I sometimes sort of tune out period costumes–because I don’t really have a great sense of fashion history I have a harder time reading character from clothes I’m unfamiliar with. But I thought that the costumes for each character told us a lot about them. Especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s bright plaid.

Elias

Yes, I agree. I’m not sure I’m familiar with Chiment’s designs; I think this is the first one of hers I’ve seen. The pattern choice on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dress really helped tell the story, as did Robert Browning’s more-conservative three-piece suit. The whole look of all three characters appeared very well-thought-out, in addition to flattering the actors.

Christine

Also noticed late in the show that EBB’s dress had pockets, which is always much appreciated. I really enjoyed the way piano music was used to move us between vignettes through the show. It also gave Robert Schumann’s asides to the audience a really different feel than the rest of the show.

Elias

I was initially concerned that Schumann’s role was going to be relegated to just that introductory interstitial the whole time, but I was gladly proven wrong. Chris Sannino’s sound designing of this script element worked really well for me.

Christine

I thought that the set felt a little busy–I understood that the messiness was a part of these characters’ lives together, but I sometimes found it distracting.

Elias

Yeah, I saw it as a clear metaphor of two forces in opposition to each other trying to occupy the same space, so in that regard it succeeded. I’ve seen several of Apollo Mark Weaver’s set designs, and I’m generally impressed with them as well as appreciative of the range of designs he’s done. I did sit in the front row, so from my more limited perspective (it was a very crowded space, both on set and in the house) I might not have gotten as much an eyeful of the distracting elements of it.

Christine

That’s possible. From a perspective further back in the audience, I really appreciated the way the interior room set just blended right into the exposed brick of the wall behind. It actually felt much more open to me (despite the crowdedness of the audience) because of that. But there was a lot to draw my eye.

Elias

The exposed architecture of the actual space did distract me a bit from my front-row perspective.  I’m not sure I bought the need/decision for exposing the whole room.

Christine

From a storytelling perspective, for a play is an anachronistic take of these historical poets, it felt like a way of blurring the boundary between where the characters are and where we are.

Elias

The lighting design felt fairly traditional for me in a lot of ways. Jerry Forsyth did make use of some moving LED light fixtures that sometimes distracted with colored light on actors’ faces. It was sometimes too unnaturally blue-white, but in other instances it blended in well. However, from my past experience with those lights, I know they’re primarily used for live music performances or social dance parties instead of as static, refocusable washes in a theatrical sense. I liked the use of lighting through the wireframe windows in the set as effect as opposed to natural lighting; they helped heighten some dramatic moments.

Christine

The end of the show also featured a lovely fire glow on the actors’ faces. Before we move on, I do want to shout out Emily Schuman’s props. They were very fun. The metronome in particular cracked me up.

Elias

 I kind of seriously fell in love with the pens for the Brownings. I think Emily Schuman is  an amazing props designer, and I’m glad to see more and more companies picking her up for work.

I think that the show could have used an intimacy choreographer, which is a thing I only just learned about a few months ago. The romantic/sexual movements with the Brownings didn’t play very well for me. It looked kind of forced, or at least not smooth or supportive of the story.

Honestly, the only reason I even know about intimacy choreography is because one of my friends travelled to a workshop to learn about it. I hope it comes to Philly in a big way.

Direction 

Christine

I thought the show was really, really well paced. And that the very different tempos and energies of the three performers were balanced well, too. The script is really funny and almost every joke landed really nicely. That speaks to the work of the actors, but also to the skill of Harriet Power.

Elias

Very much agree. I particularly enjoyed the direction in the scene where Robert Browning starts off dancing. It was a really good choice in how that vignette moved and fit in the rest of the show.

Christine

Oh! Yes. Me too. I also loved the scene when Robert Browning reads a very long poem–it was almost cinematic the way Power managed to show the passing of a very long time in just a simple moment.

Elias

Yes! That was a great moment of collaboration with script, acting, and design, which had to be handled by a very deft directorial hand.

Christine

It seemed like there was a lot of synchronicity among the artists making this piece–the director and actors and playwright seemed to be really clearly interpreting each other’s work.

Script
Elias 

As with all of Orbiter 3’s plays, Sam Henderson’s script is a world premiere. I know he’d been working on the script for a number of years, with readings also directed by Harriet Power. I have a copy of the script but haven’t read it all the way through yet, which allowed me to be surprised by the show itself.

Christine

 I liked the script a lot overall. As I mentioned above, I found it very funny, with humor on multiple levels. I found the view of romantic love and marriage that the play explores to be pretty challenging and honestly a little upsetting.

Elias

 It’s a very, very disarmingly funny script. And then it delves directly into issues of co-dependency and mental illness and hit me squarely in the middle of all my feelings.

Christine

 I had a really similar experience. I think that one of the things that makes the play special for me is that I expected a version of it that was just the competition and bantering between the two Brownings. But it was much more than that.

Elias

 And I think it was a very honest and vulnerable telling of the story of such relationships. Those themes really resonated with me.

Christine

 I found the vignette structure really effective for this story, because, with all that we see of the Brownings relationship, I found myself thinking about the totality of their lives together outside of what we see of them. The snippets painted a picture without kind of overwhelming us with the intensity of their lives together.

Elias

 Usually when scenes are written as short as they are in The Brownings, it doesn’t work well. Henderson was able to make each scene so well self-contained in his vignette structure that also linked together smoothly and thoroughly.

Christine

The last thing I want to bring up here is the characterization of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I have a particular distaste for stories about tortured male genius writers and I thought that EBB was a fascinating inversion of that trope’s characteristics. It also really refreshing to watch a story where the female character is acknowledged as obviously creatively superior to her husband.

Elias

 Yeah, that was great. And it carefully walked the line of the “crazy woman” trope that could be damaging. I’m still rolling that around in my mind as to whether the script succeeded in critiquing it, though.

Christine

 I hear that. I felt that it mostly did for me. Mostly because the male characters in the show, though they are critical of EBB and sometimes even a little cruel to her, are never dismissive of her. I think women are often given the “crazy” label to disempower them, but that doesn’t seem to be a a box that EBB gets put in.

Elias

 Yeah, I agree with that. And it paints a fuller, more human picture of mental illness than just an exploitation of it for dramatic effect.

Performances

Christine 

As I mentioned above, I am a big Charlotte Northeast fan; she brings so much weird humor and boldness to everything she does. This role had a huge emotional range for her character and I thought she navigated it really beautifully.

Elias

Charlotte Northeast is always a powerful presence on stage. I was similarly captivated by her ability to command the range of the role, in all her small and big gestures. I also found David Ingram’s Robert Browning to be nuanced and compelling. And I loved James Ijames’s turn at Robert Schumann: so charming and introverted and excited and excitable.

Christine 

Agreed. James Ijames made me laugh with the simplest things–repeating the word “Cool,” widening his eyes, headshakes. 

Elias

A really great cast.

Accountability:

Christine

As you brought up above, I think this play presents a really complex view of mental illness. I found its treatment of traditional gender roles really interesting as well.

Elias

 Yeah, we don’t often see responsible representation of mental illness on stage. I don’t know if the play was specifically for people with lifetime mental illness, but I think it could be.

Christine

Agreed. It felt like there was a lot in there for people who have not had experience with mental illness as well, but for people with that experience I imagine it was probably a deeper and different experience.

Race was directly addressed in one scene of the show, and I’m not sure I found that scene totally clear or satisfying.

Elias

I also had questions about that scene. Were they lampshading us? “Look at Robert Browning telling a racist joke, isn’t it bad that he’s doing such a racist thing?” But you still get to make that joke at us, even if it is truncated by Robert Schumann. How necessary was that scene in the end?

Christine

 Yeah, it felt like it was only dipping its toe into this idea that didn’t really appear in the rest of the play. On the one hand, I respect that the play made some attempt to address the whiteness of the Brownings–I think that, too often, whiteness just gets to be an unquestioned default state in theatre–but on the other, I don’t know that it was addressed in a way that fit into the rest of the piece or included a clear perspective.

Elias

 Fair points. It did seem odd to bring it up without going more deeply into the issue, but that would’ve either made the play another 20 minutes longer or a different play.

Christine

 Agreed. Overall though, I thought this was a play that really knew its audience. It felt particularly directed towards artists–speaking to their particular fears and struggles.

Elias

 Yes, I think that it very much was effective in that.

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