EgoPo Classic Theater – A Human Being Died That Night

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Reviewers: Steele and Rue

The Takeaways

  • All the production elements were simple enough to let the two actors shine 
  • This is a very important story to have onstage right now
  • While the production succeeded in getting its message across there may be some disconnect between the production’s goals and the play’s goals

 

In our pockets

Steele: I know and love Niya Colbert, and I’ve partnered with EgoPo before.

Rue: I came into this show knowing absolutely nothing except for one of the performers.

 

Design

Steele: I thought the lights (Amanda Jensen) for the movement between Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s (Niya Colbert) presentation and when she was in the prison with Eugene de Kock (Paul Nolan) were simple and effective.

Rue: I completely agree. I thought the lights were really clean and efficient. The framing of the play where Pumla breaks away from the intimate prison scenes was largely informed by the changing lights. I had questions about the windows though–light was coming through them, but it felt like there was a lack of specificity as to what those lights meant and what any changes in them were supposed to tell me.

Steele: I agree. There was only one time when the lighting in the window made me feel like we had moved into the morning, but other than that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get from their shifts. I also wish the convention of Pumla’s character showing a powerpoint was used at least one more time.

Rue: Yes! Opening with the powerpoint set up expectations for me that it would be a much more consistent convention. I did think that the powerpoint was in a strange position for half the audience, so having it appear only once did remedy that for me.

Steele: I attributed that problem to the simple set, though I also found the position of the powerpoint strange.

Rue: It felt to me like the set design came first and the powerpoint was made to fit after, rather than integrating the two together (which, seeing as the powerpoint only happened once, does make sense). Moving into sound – to be blunt, I thought the sound was a little distracting. The opening cue was really hard for me to hear. And there were a number of cues that felt out of place or unacknowledged and took me away from the intimate immersive experience (like the brawl happening outside the prison room in the middle of the play).

Steele: I really craved more of the natural sound of the room for such an intimate setting. I loved when we heard the chains rattle. I wanted to hear water pouring, chair squeaking, pens tapping, etc.

Rue: Sound notwithstanding, the costumes provoked a pretty big question I had about the whole show for me.

Steele: Oooh, what are you thinking?

Rue: The big thing I walked away from the show thinking was, whose story was it? A lot of the different elements of the show had me torn, but costumes was a big one. Overall, I thought the costumes were really effective: simple, clean, told us a lot about the characters quickly–Pumla in her muted pant suit and Eugene in a bright orange prison uniform. But the costumes made Pumla recede a bit to me. She blended more into the gray of the set, whereas Eugene literally visually popped. It gave him more focus, in my opinion, by default.

Steele: OH, I was thinking about this too. I had a lot of thoughts around the fact that the play really does set this up to be Eugene’s story. He is the focus, his journey is the one we’re tracking. I hadn’t even thought about how the costumes played into that, but I think it did. I suppose that makes sense considering (if I remember correctly) it’s based on a book Pumla wrote about Eugene. Meanwhile, the set (Yoshi Nomura) felt appropriately simple to me (noting what we’ve already mentioned about location of the powerpoint).

Rue: Agreed. I appreciated the hard edges. Angular, and reaching out into the audience a bit – it felt like it was pulling me in but keeping me at a distance at the same time. I liked that give and take. I liked that the props were sparse. Felt very consistent with the rest of the vibe of the show.

Steele: Everything felt appropriately pedestrian. And I don’t think there was anything unnecessary on stage, which was important for such an environment.

 

Performances

Steele: Niya’s restrained strength was wonderful to watch. She has the skilled ability to move from completely professional to emotional. They both did a wonderful job keeping the audience engaged in a two-person show, which isn’t easy.

Rue: I completely agree. The performances absolutely took my breath away in this production. It felt like all the technical elements were kept simple to really let them shine. I thought they had really great chemistry and played off one another incredibly well. I was impressed by Paul’s ability to command so much power during his monologues when he was literally chained to a desk almost the whole time.

Steele: I agree! It’s what made the one time he did try to pull out of range so effective, because he’d been so strong in such a small physical space.

Rue: Yes! That moment terrified me. I was like, get ready to scooch, Pumla! This show played with my mind.

 

Direction

Steele: I thought Steve Wright did a great job. He let the performers shine. I felt a bit of inequity in how much “face time” house left was given to Pumla. Although the two of them are focused on each other at most time, as they should, I felt like Eugene was able to find more moments with house right than Pumla did with house left.

Rue: I noticed that too, and completely agree. Overall, I thought the production was really consistent in the narrative it was trying to tell and, as you said, first and foremost was able to let these performers be the power houses they are.

Steele: The direction was able to give us both character’s arcs with utter emotional availability, which was great.

Rue: I really loved the choice at the end to have the characters switch which sides of the space they commanded, once Eugene wasn’t chained to the desk anymore. I always like a solid visual to accompany an emotional arc.

 

Accountability

Rue: I really think the play–in the writing–is set up to be Pumla’s story–she establishes the framing device, she’s our narrator, our tether, she creates the circumstances for their interaction to happen at all. Meanwhile, I thought EgoPo’s production pushed us to focus more on Eugene’s story than Pumla’s, and that created some tension between what the play might be trying to say and what the production wanted to say.

Steele: What I can’t determine is if that is a problem. In the curtain speech and marketing materials, it is noted that this production was picked to mirror America’s current race situation. There are plenty of stories set here in the States that could have tackled that issue. What I believe to be true is that EgoPo knew that this story takes place just far enough from their audiences’ reality (and I think specifically their older white audiences’ reality), and allows them to give a more unbiased look at the truth.

Rue: I completely agree. I think overall, the production really succeeded with that (kudos EgoPo!). What I struggled with was if there in fact was any tension between the intent of the story vs. the intent of the production. What can we learn by EgoPo pushing forward the narrative of the white character over the POC character without addressing that choice?

Steele: Yes, I felt that same tension. I want to believe that pushing the narrative of the white character over the narrative of the POC was in an effort to reach the audience they hoped to impact. This play is a good choice if they wanted to mirror America’s struggle with race. The new South African vs. Old South Africa is pretty much the same as “Make America Great Again.” White people’s fear that their way of life will shake as a result of equality is definitely relevant. Who was this play for? That’s a hard question. But I would say that the message of looking at the humanity of someone like Eugene is important. It’s important to look at where his fears came from that made him do what he did.

Rue: My initial impulse was to say that this play is trying to wake up white people, but after chewing on it, I actually think it’s for a much wider spectrum than I initially gave it credit for. Yes, making white people address their fears and irrationalities is super important and I think this play and production did that really well, but also representation in general is so important, and I can also see this production as a way for POC to get to celebrate their power. Pumla ran that room. I’d follow her anywhere, to be honest.

Steele: Absolutely!

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Hager Productions – Basic Witches

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Reviewers: Wendi and Benjamin

 

The Takeaways

  • Warmth and support from start to finish
  • Beautiful performances
  • Accountability for their community

 

In our pockets

Wendi: I do not know a lot about the Drag community so that’s probably the main thing in my pockets. I didn’t feel excluded in that space, though, despite not having been to many drag shows in the past.

Benjamin: I know a lot of the folks in the show and was surprised to see so many familiar names in the program book!

 

Design

Wendi: The costumes and make-up were spot on. I love how they invoked images of the witches they were representing with the drag flair. The names were also amazing – I did spend some time trying to figure out who two of the witches were representing, but it was satisfying when it finally clicked.

Benjamin: I agree! Every new costume somehow managed to top the previous one. I loved their bed robes!

Wendi: I will say that the music was SO LOUD – to the point where there were one or two moments where I couldn’t quite understand what the performers were singing, and that frustrated me. That being said, the music was pretty good. Most songs were catchy and fun with the occasional campy-ish (but effective) I WANT songs.

Benjamin: Some of the music in the show made me feel like I was at various clubs in the Gayborhood. Some of the quieter pieces made me feel like I was at The Piano Bar at Tavern on Camac and then the next song would transport me to Voyeur at 2:30 in the morning on a Saturday night.

Wendi: Wow, that’s a great way to put it.

Benjamin: So I personally enjoyed how amped up the bass was for some of the numbers. I do agree that it may have overpowered the vocals and I missed out some of the great lyrics that Robi Hager and John Treacy Egan crafted for this musical.

Wendi: Yes, missing those lyrics was frustrating, because there were a few moments where I really didn’t know what was going on. I was along for the ride, but I was aware that there were stakes around the story that I didn’t understand.

Benjamin: Like what?

Wendi: Well there was a moment where it was time for them to do magic for the title of Supreme Witch – but I thought they had already done that. I was confused by how time passed in those moments – a year, maybe? I’m really not sure.

Benjamin: Yes! I remember being confused by that as well. Because there was a song where each witch made the lights change – it was really engaging, and so I thought it was the Magic portion of the competition, but then The Host (Eric Jaffe) later announced that the competition was coming soon – it got hard to follow.

Wendi: What about the lights?

Benjamin: The lights were the perfect level of campy.

Wendi: Lights had that club aspect for me, and I never felt harassed by them. The set was simple and easy. The costumes take up so much space and I think that was a good call.

Benjamin: I was impressed with how they were able to create wings in such a small space.

Wendi: The design was like a character. It let you know: this isn’t a regular world we are in right now.

 

The performances

Wendi: The highlight was definitely the performers.

Benjamin: Yes! They were always committed to their characters, which was so satisfying. I really appreciated that Bony (Lorenzo Ballesteros) added a layer of brujeria to the show.

Wendi: Yes!

Benjamin: The audience interaction never made me feel anxious like it does in other productions I’ve experienced.

Wendi: I think they talked to some people ahead of time. Which is what you should do. Or they made everyone comfortable enough so it would feel that way.

Benjamin: For sure. All of the performers were really good at feeding on the audience’s energy, as a collective and also with one-on-one moments.

 

The writing

Wendi: The book was lovely. I appreciated the cultural references and metaphors. I think there were a few moments where the story could have used some tightening, and I longed for clearer stakes for everyone. Eddie (Sav Souza) was such a lovely character, but it seemed like they gave up very easily on their goal. I get that they realized it wasn’t really what they wanted, but how they came to that realization wasn’t clear.

Benjamin: I really appreciated how this musical touched on transphobia within the drag community. Oceana served as a nice foil for a generation of folx on the outside, or in between the binary that have suffered prejudice. The musical was written in a way to turn the audience bias against Davanity. 

Wendi: Wow! That’s so interesting. I truly was never rooting for Davanity. I wasn’t sure which Witch to root for actually, I saw them all as the enemies to Eddie which is maybe why I wasn’t as satisfied with the ending. It was fun and low stakes, but I really didn’t get why Punkin’ (Brennen S. Malone) was crowned or what we were supposed to take away from that.

 

Accountability

Wendi: I really appreciated the care they took to call out their own community.

Benjamin: Yes, I think it’s worth it to include the Dramaturg’s note for folx who weren’t able to see this musical, because it so concisely defines the piece’s terms surrounding identity:

Transgender is an umbrella term for people who defy social expectations of how they should look, act, or identify based on their birth sex. This umbrella is expansive and some examples include everything from transgender women & men (people who were assigned female & male identifiers at birth, but knew themselves as something different) non-binary people, (a group that includes people who do not identify with gender at all, more than one gender, or a gender that is neither male nor female) and gender non-conforming people (a group that some include under non-binary, characterized by a general eschewing of conventional expectations of gender all together). These are just some of the wide expanse of transgender communities. While the conversation around transgender rights in the United States may seem fairly new, this has been an active social identity stretching back millennia with similar concepts present on every continent across the globe, such as the Cultists of Cybele in Ancient Greece, the Two-Spirit Shamans of indigenous American cultures, the Hijra of India, and even playing a significant role in European High Courts through the Renaissance.