Theatre Exile – Completeness

Reviewers: Janae and Linor

 

The TakeAways

  • Heteromantic comedy
  • Engaging performances
  • Writing that was often compelling
  • On-the-nose design

 

In Our Pockets

Janae: I’m a POC Philly based performance artist, writer, and friend of Mary Tuomanen and James Ijames. I have seen a couple of Theatre Exile productions and done a couple of readings there.

Linor: I’m a white Philly based maker and playwright. I’ve seen quite a few shows from Theatre Exile and for the most part I like the work they produce.

 

Design

Linor: The lights by Alyssandra Docherty, like most of the elements of the play, revved up for me so that by the time we were in the last third of the play, I found myself surprised by them – in a good way. I don’t know if you had that experience also?

Janae: I’d have to say yes. They revved up and I was surprised, but I think I have feelings about the element of surprise being the way to go. I’ll save that for direction. Otherwise, the lighting was crisp and clean.

Linor: Ooh, I can’t wait to talk more about that. But yes, the lighting totally built an arena that was clinical and technical – something that’s not really in my taste but made a lot of sense for the piece.

Janae: I agree. The sound design by Mike Kiley was both highly resonant and playfully realistic. The thought of how technology and white noise can be both an assault on the senses and yet just a part of life at the same time was an interesting take.

Linor: Honestly, at first the sound design felt so on the nose that it bothered me, but like I said before, as the story revved, so did the design, and I found myself liking it more by the end of the play.

Janae: Costumes by Alison Roberts showed a level of progression as the characters went through different phases. I thought they were effective.

Linor: Yeah, totally. And really specific to their characters, and their characters’ sense of self. I also appreciated that the costuming to differentiate all the different roles Justin Rose and Claire Inie-Richards were playing was subtle but evocative.

Janae: Absolutely.

Linor: Colin McIlvaine’s set, similar to the clinical/technical lighting choices – made a lot of sense for the container the play was investigating. You know, technology, and the intersection between these high academic science and engineering theories and gritty human interactions. I think in general my problem with the design in this production was that it felt so on the nose to the container, but not necessarily to the actual themes and questions the play was grappling with (how do we communicate with each other?). The actual humanity of the play is so messy, and I kind of longed to see that in the design. Does that make sense?

Janae: Yes that does make sense. In Itamar Moses’ interview, he said he didn’t need a degree in computer science to get at the specifics of the traveling salesman problem. The set was a well executed experiment in microchip design and tiny living. Which speaks somewhat to the immense amounts of data sets and combinations in the traveling salesman problem, but then can blur out the actual humanity as you said. But I want to shout out Eli Lynn for intimacy choreography. First of all, hell yes to intimacy choreography! Thank you Eli Lynn for the work done! From my perspective I felt intimacy without objectification.

Linor: I agree! I’m so happy to know that Theatre Exile used an intimacy choreographer. I think Eli did a great job and more importantly, I felt like the nudity and intimacy was handled with total and utter respect. You could feel that the actors were comfortable, so I felt comfortable. Finally, props (Shaelyn Weatherup) were light on the ground for this show – most of the physical dressings were integrated into the set, similarly in this clinical, tech style. It was actually the props and the costumes that made me feel like I was even watching real humans at all. I think, once again, I just wished that this human vs. tech element had been woven together more successfully.

Janae: I’m gonna go ahead and agree with you on that.

 

Performances

Linor: I’ve never seen James Ijames act before, and I’m a huge fan of Mary Tuomanen. I was really compelled by their chemistry – they seemed pretty natural together. I also feel like James did a great job of capturing a character who was sympathetic even as you watched him self destruct a little bit. I mean, they both did a good job with that.

Janae: I was delighted to have them walk me through some pretty dense terminology and just enjoyed the way they played together. Justin Rose and Claire Inie-Richards came through on the supporting roles. It was interesting to see the humanity breathed into all these flawed and at times clingy characters.

Linor: I agree. I think all of the characters must have been so fun to play for these actors – to really step into these chewy, at times disagreeable roles – people who were throwing tantrums or avoiding each other, or loving each other. I could tell everyone was having a good time.

 

Direction

Linor: I believe you had some thoughts about the direction?

Janae: Yes and I think this has something to do with your issues with design as well. You can tell me what you think. The thing that really got to me was the handoff as Elliot and Molly split ways, leading to the cacophonous breakdown. I felt it came out of nowhere and the choreography in that moment didn’t feel supported or dropped in earlier. There could have been a way to seed in a gesture of that cacophony sooner. I also just felt like if they wanted to lean so far into tech land then that part of the world could have had earlier glitches or surges as well. Does that make sense?

Linor: Totally. I think the choreography of that moment was a little gimmicky. And it lasted a while – I understand that it was building up to this moment of overload, but I found myself totally taken out of the piece. And it was in that moment when I realized that I was watching a relationship play. I was like, oh, this is just about a break-up. Again, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, it just makes me kind of check out. But to be honest – after the overload choreography and in that space of pause when Justin and Claire came out and took a breath with the audience – then I was totally hooked. It was one of the first times the play got me leaning forward.

Janae: Fair. I could smell the relationship play earlier. I think the checkout is not a bad thing but I just feel that because I could see it coming it sooner I just wanted more crafting around it. Me and my aesthetic wants are creeping in.

Linor: I hear you – though I don’t think it’s only your aesthetic. While the design elements certainly converged in that moment (the revving up I had mentioned before), I agree that there could have been glimpses of these cacophony in some of the direction.

 

The writing

Linor: So I as I said before, I definitely felt myself checking out the moment I realized this play was a break-up play. Which is a shame, because I think the playwright is smart. The stuff he was writing about is smart, and I actually think the structure of the play is super interesting. I loved the break in the play when Justin and Claire came out as themselves. What did you think of that moment?

Janae: I was there for it because I love that exercise. I also enjoyed people-watching to see who was uncomfortably giggly and how the actors worked with that in a moment of silence. Meanwhile I couldn’t help but notice that none of the characters ever apologized for their actions. Or at least that’s how it felt, and that has stayed with me. It just seemed a little too clean, and in platitudes about relationships. It felt like no one ever got a thought out completely.

Linor: Oh I totally agree with that, it drove me crazy. I know that that’s a writer’s choice, but likewise, talking around the thing felt evocative of a relationship, not demonstrating an actual one. Or at least, it felt like a relationship where everything was really symbolic. You know, we feel the moment that they slip away from each other, and most of it’s informed by what they don’t say rather than what they do. I suppose that some relationships definitely operate like that but of course that can make it a little hard for an audience member to follow. We can’t hear what they’re thinking, so how would we know what’s really going on?

Janae: Essentially the story here was “spill your guts to a special someone, and then go have sex with a whole bunch of people in order to come to some level of self actualization (without doing any inner work) and then realize that this special one is the one.”

 

Accountability

Linor: I guess on one level – this play is for people who are ambitious. And most people can relate to the feelings of relationships that don’t work or don’t communicate effectively. But I guess what was missing to me the most was a sense of why this play matters now – I don’t really know the answer to that. But I’m willing to be convinced! Maybe I’m just butting up against my own tastes here. I don’t really feel like we need to produce a ton of plays about straight people not being able to communicate with each other very well. But perhaps that’s ungenerous.

Janae: I’m right there with you. I can only posit that this play is for differing generations and we need it now because despite the changes in technology, the problems of relationships remain the same. But then to me that just ends up holding a mirror to the stagnant nature of heterosociety for the past who knows how many years, and offers no real questions about how to move forward/evolve. Yes, we can be here in the quiet in the same room together and breathe, but can we learn to truly listen to one another? I don’t know. On another note, I had trouble with the casting. On the Samuel French page for Completeness, the only casting attribute it says is ‘non-traditional casting,’ which makes the tokenization of James Ijames is an interesting choice. Of course that’s a ratio of 3:1 white people to POC, and in the house of where the ratio was approximately 118:2 I suppose it’s about right. But what does “non-traditional” actually mean?

Linor: I agree with you, although I will say that I don’t know how Claire Inie-Richards identifies, and we could be reading her incorrectly as white. But I am right there with you on this “non-traditional” casting nonsense. It’s honestly the laziest form of playwright instruction. I can’t tell you the number of plays I’ve read where the playwright writes “playwright encourages nontraditional casting” as an addendum to the character descriptions and thinks they’ve done the work. It’s useless, because most theaters are going to look at that word ‘encourage,’ completely ignore it, and cast whoever they want. If that’s actually what Itamar Moses wrote in his character descriptions – based on the Samuel French page, so I presume it’s accurate – that’s a big bummer. The best way to ensure diverse casting is by being a playwright who specifies the race of each character within their unique character descriptions, not as an addition to be considered, and then ignored politely by theaters.

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