Theatre Exile – On the Exhale

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Reviewers: Linor and Rue

 

Take Aways

  • We would watch Suli do anything
  •  Disappointing technical elements
  •  Poor writing
  • A play that doesn’t take big risks

 

In our pockets

Rue: I hate one person shows. Very often I ask myself why is this a one person show, why are you talking to the audience, and I feel like most one person shows don’t answer that question in a satisfying way.

Linor: I was exhausted. But I love Suli.

Rue: I also love Suli.

 

Design

Linor: There was a lighting effect (by Alyssandra Docherty) during certain moments of the play in which stained glass panels were projected on the stage area. It was a really cool effect and played on some of the more emotional moments in the piece, but I didn’t understand what they were trying to communicate to the audience. It never felt like “when the character feels or experiences this, then the lights do that” – there was no consistency. It ended up feeling like a cool effect for the sake of a cool effect.

Rue: I agree, I really enjoyed that specific effect. Unfortunately, I was sitting in the center section and the lights were literally in my face. I don’t think I got to witness all of the artistry because my vision was obstructed. It was a shame, because I was sitting center stage where most of the piece was blocked for, and so this vision obstruction was super noticeable.

Linor: I felt like some of the lighting missed critical opportunities here in this piece. They were not super dynamic – they could have accentuated action in certain moments or could have been representative of an inner life, but it all fell kind of flat for me.

Rue: Meanwhile, there was no sound in this play, nor a sound designer! I thought a soundscape could have really enhanced the narrative and felt like it was a missed opportunity. 

Linor: I totally agree. There’s no reason for there not to be a sound designer. Sound really ignites a play. A one person show feels inherently theatrical, because we have to really imagine why one person is talking to us so long. Not using sound to spark that theatricality was disappointing. 

Rue: I’m not typically drawn to sound in shows, so it surprised me that I felt its lackso deeply with this play. The fact that I noticed at all is very telling to me that it was sorely needed.

Linor: Meanwhile, I thought Suli’s costume (by Keyonna Butler) was totally effective. She looked like a college professor to me, and really signaled the part of Liberal Woman.

Rue: Interesting. The costume frustrated me tremendously. All the other design elements seemed stark, or representational, or at least open enough for audience imagination, but the costume was so specific. I didn’t understand in the design world of this play, and why the costuming went in such a literal, non-abstracted direction. It didn’t mesh with the other elements of the play. 

Linor: Sure, I hear that. I mean, I see the costume as being super clear and evocative, and also agree that it was perhaps the only design element that didn’t leave anything up to the imagination. Unlike Alyssandra Docherty’s set for example – a blank elevated stage, and a bench to the upstage right corner. And I will say right away that I am super down to be in a visual world that feels – for lack of a better word – empty, drawing all of our attention to the words and the performance. I think that the other design elements weren’t as evocative sort of signaled to me that we were in a visually stark landscape. Which is why that bench was incredibly distracting to me. I didn’t understand why it was there, I didn’t understand why she used it only once, and I had no idea why they needed it to tell this story. It felt almost lazy to have a set piece that stood out so starkly in such a simple visual world, and then to use it only once in the final fifteen minutes of this seventy-minute piece.

Rue: I hear that. The set honestly didn’t bother me although I absolutely noticed that they only used that bench once! I think the set was successful in creating a container for Suli. She filled it, she activated it for me, so I didn’t stress much about it being pared down. I wonder if most other actors would have been as successful though. 

Linor: Oh yeah, Suli’s a powerhouse. That’s why I almost wished that this piece was like – in a conference room or something. I either wanted Suli to be the only element of theatricality, or to see a piece that was chock-a-block full of theatrical elements. This felt like all Suli and 50% of everything else. It frustrated me.

Rue: I completely agree.

 

Performance

Rue: We could watch Suli Holum brush her teeth and be entertained. 

Linor: Suli’s a genius. Watching her perform in this piece right after seeing her in Dance Nation just illustrates the breadth of her talent. In On the Exhale she totally succeeded in reading to me as a liberal, highly educated woman encountering a new and uncomfortable secret about herself. This might feel like a cop-out, but I do feel like what hit me the wrong way in the performance can be attributed to the writing, and in some ways the directing, not to Suli.

Rue: I completely agree. Suli’s an absolute powerhouse. I have qualms with the design elements of this show but absolutely walked away very satisfied with the play simply because Suli is incredible. It’s worth seeing this show just to see her work.

Linor: I disagree that Suli alone can save this play, but she is incredible and I want that known.

 

Direction 

Rue: The mismatched nature of the design elements – the leadership of which I attribute to the director (Matt Pfeiffer) disappointed me.

Linor: Picking through what is writing, performance, and directing is definitely hard, and I want to acknowledge that the source material of this play is so sensitive, so I imagine that the artists involved were treading carefully. But there were some performance choices that made no sense to me – for example: why did Suli mime the gun, but nothing else? I didn’t feel like I needed that help – the play is so verbose, so visual cues like that were totally unnecessary. Those kinds of inconsistencies looked – on my end – like a bandaid on larger dramaturgical problems I had with the play, not actual solutions. So I agree, I was disappointed with this directorial vision of the play. That being said – I do think that I will be transparent and say that my biggest problems with this play lie in the script, as I imagine you will agree, Rue.

Rue: Absolutely.

 

Script

Linor: I think writers have such a heavy responsibility to consider the way that their words will fall on a traditional theater audience. For better or for worse, we live in a city where a theater with the means to produce On The Exhale will be patronized by largely aging, white audiences, and so this play seemed to me to echo their preconceived notions about gun control anyway. It felt like a giant Ted Talk, a lecture that was parroting the gun control debate, not actually engaging with the themes in a deeply theatrical way. I learned nothing new about this issue, or how I might perceive it – which I consider to be theater’s entire and urgent job.

Rue: I’ll put content aside and say that the writing was just bad to me. There was one beautiful sentence in the play that struck me, but then the playwright repeated it, and any resonance I had with the moment was squashed. Small moments like that felt like the playwright was using repetition not as a dramatic tool, nor as a means to signal something important to the audience, but rather to pat himself on the back. The writing was heavy handed and self-congratulatory.

Linor: I mean, this is going to sound so ungenerous, but I walked away from that play thinking, Martín Zimmerman knew he could get a one-woman play about gun control performed in every theater in America. The most potentially exciting moment in the play – when this mother who has lost her son to a mass shooter becomes inexplicably obsessed with shooting an assault weapon – never played out to the depth I wanted it to. It felt like a Hot Hook, a reason for people to see the play as edgy without having to take some really uncomfortable risks. We have the opportunity here to really plumb to the depths of the universal response to violence all people have within themselves, but we never went there. 

Rue: It’s a testament to how impressive a performer Suli is that, as a playwright, I was able to transcend my deep frustration with the writing and enjoy the play anyway.

 

Accountability

Rue: I want to ask who this play was for. This goes back to what you were saying earlier about Theatre Exile’s audience – it’s a pretty safe assumption that most of their audience already agreed with this play before they walked through the door. So this play is for…the people who don’t know how they feel about guns? The people who are like, oh yeah I’m on the fence? (Do those people exist within our theaters’ audiences?) Ultimately I think this play was for people who wanted a show to agree with them, tell them they’re right, reaffirm their already rock solid convictions. As a personal preference, that isn’t the art I get the most excited about.

Linor: I’m right there with you. I’m not particularly interested in seeing a piece of theater that advocates for the NRA or anything, but as I said before, this did not feel like a meaningful contribution to the gun violence conversation, but rather a hot-button-issue play that capitalized on the urgency of the problem.

Rue: This is a one-hander that put a white cis-woman front and center. So, checks some boxes of representation, and misses quite a few more. The content of the play didn’t dig too deeply into intersectional conversations. Even though a woman carried the show, it was obvious to me this play was written by a man. The power dynamics between the lead and any other character she mentioned, or even the lead finding a draw to assault weapons felt shallow. Look at this woman with her gun kind of thing.

Linor: I’ll flag that we don’t actually know if this piece was written explicitly for a white actress, or if Theatre Exile just cast one. There was one very cursory mention of the character’s sexuality, which seemed to intimate that she was interested in women, but that neither came up again nor was at all relevant to the story, which likewise infuriated me. I agree with your sentiment that it felt like this play was all about checking boxes.

Rue: Why this play now? Well, from a producing standpoint–a one hander with a single bench and a mimed gun is cheap. 

Linor: I agree that this piece is probably super affordable to produce, but I think here is where I can distill my larger problem with the play and its writing. Because obviously there is an epidemic of gun violence in this country. It is deplorable, hopeless, disgusting, and horrifying. So yeah, I want to see a play about this right now. I want to grieve with my fellow Americans. But this play didn’t really do any of that. It parrotted back what people already thought and felt. Noticing my dissatisfaction about this piece made me ask myself what kind of play about gun violence could actually accomplish what I wish On the Exhale did, and then immediately I thought of the play Gloria by Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins. That play really implicates everyone – including the audience – in the violence of gun violence. It implicates us in how we encounter and process gun violence in this country. With the exception of the shooter being a woman, that play is so sickeningly accurate. I already know that I feel mortified at the state of gun violence in this country. I want theater about the issue to turn it around and make me feel responsible. Because then maybe I can work towards a solution.

Rue: I agree with you, but I also feel like that’s an answer to a different question. We hoped this play would be exactly what you said. But why this play, as it is, in this moment in time? I don’t think there’s a valid reason, simply because it doesn’t contribute to the conversation in an impactful, nuanced way. I completely agree that it parroted back what the majority of theater-going audiences probably already think and feel about gun control and gun violence right now. If a play sets itself up to contribute to a controversial conversation but then fails to challenge, expound on, or subvert a popular point of view about that controversial issue, then–in my opinion–what’s the point?

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