Reviewers: Steele and Rue
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reviewers: Wendi and Benjamin
- 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The production paid expert attention to building an experience for a specialized audience (babies)
- The soundscape of the show, both recorded and created live by the performers, was skilled and magical
- The set offered exciting surprises, even to me as an adult
In my pockets
I love babies. I am a parent. I met one of the performers the day before I saw the show.
The design of the show was impressive. The set designer (Tess Kunik) used heat-free lighting in the areas where the babies could potentially touch the lights. The lighting design really helped emphasize the shifts in the experience – being low and concentrated in stiller moments, and bright colorful strobing lights during highly energetic moments.
The soundscape (Steve Hayward) was also really helpful in creating the world of the production. The recorded music was great, but what really set the sound of the experience apart were the noises the performers themselves made: pops, grunts, and woo’s that really engaged the babies.
The construction of the set clearly demonstrated the thought the designers put into it. The “landing pad” offered a pre-show space to let the audience orient themselves with the world and each other. Inside the tent the set and props worked together to support the world of the play in a great way. While I’m much older than the intended audience, I still found the space magical, and in two instances in particular, when the kelp mobile was revealed and the seemingly nonfunctional ceiling structures turned into jellyish, I was very surprised.
The performers created engaging tableaus with their bodies throughout the piece. While there were no words, I still felt and understood that a story was being told through their interactions. They allowed themselves to be fully present and available to their audience, often being used as a prop for new walkers. Despite the show being for babies, the performers didn’t interact with their audience in an infantile way, they performed for them.
Probably my only critique of the direction (Sam Tower) is that I didn’t feel like it came to a pointed enough conclusion. The ending was abrupt, but I also have to note that though the performance ended, the experience continued for the babies who went on to play and explore. My feeling of a sudden end could have been because I was one of the only adults who didn’t have a baby with me in the show.
This is a great model for accessible performances. The makers showed great care in creating for their specific audience – an audience I’d argue is underserved. Performance for babies is not often presented. Ninth Planet created an experience where babies were encouraged to explore, make sounds, and be themselves.
- Lovely design, great original music
- Beautiful ensemble work and really smart direction
In my pockets
I know a few people in the cast and crew, and to be honest, it was a terrible weekend and I wasn’t sure I was ready to watch something uplifting just yet. But in the end, Monster was a really heartwarming experience.
Lights: (Amanda Jensen) were functional and served both the spoken scenes as well as the musical numbers well, successfully evoking the different musical tones of different songs as well as keeping things well lit enough to support the comedy.
Sound/Music: Edward Smith mixed a well-balanced play and there wasn’t one glitch in the sound. The music (Moonglass and Jamison Foreman/the ensemble) was, for me, the glue that held the show together. The program says that the original production had music by Moonglass and that the Inis Nua production filled in the gaps and added new content, and the result is near-constant underscoring, primarily by Foreman on piano. At moments I wondered if it was stylistically a little more “musical theatre-y” in sound than the show wanted, but for the most part it kept the almost farcical pace up while maintaining the sweetness in an incredibly welcome way.
Costumes: Natalia de la Torre designed lovely costumes that supported the story well, with the piece de resistance being a fantastic “Fairy of Catastrophe” ensemble worn by multiple actors. The piece featured a trash bag tutu, wand, and tiara. A show like this which relies on a base actor look and layered character pieces on top can be really difficult to design. Oftentimes that strategy is challenging – you have to make the pieces simple enough that they can be taken on and off multiple times with little fuss, and de la Torre got it bang on, right down to the tiny sharpie doodles on Duck’s chucks.
Set (Apollo Mark Weaver): the set is dizzying and very successful– two large overlapping platforms form the primary playing space. My fear about the actors slipping of them really added to the sense of precariousness that is the driving force behind the play. Laundry-line-like cords littered with clothes and junk fill the rather high ceilinged Bluver theater space in a very satisfying way, and the platforms are buoyed by trash detritus featuring a lot of UK exclusive food that I really appreciated. The curtains on the far sides of the space (initially they read as discarded bedsheets) could have been a hair wider. They were used for quick change hiding spaces, but occasionally I could see actors struggling to stay behind it while changing. Overall I was incredibly impressed with this set.
Props: The props, designed by Sarah Sindelar, were simple and functional with a nice eye to detail– I appreciated the contents of the center stage bookshelf which crucially featured a full set of Harry Potter books and others that would definitely inform Duck’s taste in literature.
This cast was so talented. They brought a tremendous amount of ease to a show that really does not pause for breath. Claris Park sets the tone and keeps up the energy in a show that really centers around their character, as well as really delivering on both the ukulele ballad and rock anthem fronts. Moyer could not have cast a better actor than Doug Durlacher for Duke– his sweetness and face-value awkwardness could easily have been overplayed for comedic value but struck the perfect balance. Eleni Delopoulos is the character actor this show needs and plays the biker anarcho-feminist just as sympathetically as the salt of the earth social worker, while also wailing on the banjo. Jamison Foreman is most invaluable as the provider of the musical air beneath the wings, but absolutely keeps up with the ensemble, notably making the jerk love interest somehow likeable. The ensemble work was seamless and delightful.
What a smartly directed play! The casting was great, and the show walked the tricky tonal balance of a play-with-music that was not a musical, a farce with 15+ characters played by four performers, and yet still managed to be heartfelt. Claire Moyer did a lovely job. It sounds like she was handed a show that gave her a lot of creative freedom, and the result was pretty pitch perfect (no pun intended).
At face value I don’t know that the play itself, or even the way it’s being produced, has much of a social agenda, but it meant a lot to me watching a show with a POC lead in a role that is in no way about her being a POC. Claris Park is a gem and I was so glad to see an up and coming Philly actor in a leading role. I hope Inis Nua continues to prioritize casting actors of color in roles that don’t require it.
- A “choose your own adventure” template is a great way to make immersive theatre immediate
- Intentionally troubling, which was personally satisfying
- The passion of the makers and performers was clearly visible
In my pockets
I had heard a lot of things about this show, both positive and negative, and was excited to experience it for myself. I’m a fan of horror theatre and excited by the idea of immersive, journeying performance. I’m also a fan of Teddy Fatcher and had a friend in the cast. I was coming off closing three Fringe shows, so I was excited that there was a show running right through the end of the festival for me to see. I’m also notoriously hard to shock and offend. My pockets were full for this one.
It was not immediately clear who all of the designers were. Apologies for the lack of clarity.
Lights: Alyssandra Docherty is a master of mood lighting. It’s always smart and focused. Especially striking were the differences between the three starting rooms.
Sound: The music and sound complimented the visual storytelling of Unhinged in a striking way, both fun and surprising. I was most struck by being able to hear bits and pieces of rooms B and C while I was in room A. Screams, shouts, grunts, and music all trickled into our room, teasing at what we could have seen.
Costumes: The costumes were minimal, though aided in building character. Most of the dancers were in various dark underwear while a high-powered business woman sauntered in and out of room A, made distinct by her clothes.
Set: The set was a murder shed of the highest degree: a maze and a labyrinth of open rooms, discarded mattresses, barbed wire, and black tarps. Spooky and shanty. A TV set stuck on static was a particular standout.
I have little to dissect about the performances – a troupe of beautifully elegant and striking dancers brought this murder shed to life. Impressive.
We were all gathered in the lobby of the Schmidt’s Commons building. There was no plumbing, no ceilings, and so Matter Movement Group had to create this world from scratch. The audience was welcomed by an older man with ghoulish makeup who gave a speech about the Fringe festival and its roots. He reminded us that theatre is not a safe space and we were not expected to be taken care of in this show. It was also said that we were to experience either an epic failure or a great experiment, but in the spirit of Fringe, it is also pure passion thrown into a room. In retrospect, I’m glad that the piece was bookended with speeches that provided context (Teddy Fatcher gave a speech at the end of the show) because without them, I don’t think I would have been as moved. The opening speech generated excitement, set the tone, and provided context in a way that wasn’t pandering or telling us what to think about what we were about to experience.
Devised by the ensemble, the piece itself is interesting and disturbing. People are chained up and chased, donning freakishly cheery masks as they taunt the audience and each other. Stand out pieces include a dance with two people in a radioactive barrel, and a breakdancer eating a piece of paper and rubbing red paint over his face on top of an American flag.
At the end of the show, before the curtain call, a small carpet was rolled out over the soaking wet marley floor for the dancers to bow. As they exited, they set up a single “Wet floor” sign for the audience. A sign of care.
Fatcher stood in the middle of the floor and addressed the audience, hair still wild from an emotionally taxing performance. His soft voice addressed us: “If you were offended by anything you saw here tonight, good. So am I. I’m offended and scared and need to say something. Have a good night.”
- Honest storytelling
- Visceral, calm, joyous, and surprising all at once
- An honesty about how hard it is to process grief
In my pockets
The tropes of experimental theatre can oftentimes bother me, so I was hoping this wasn’t going to be self-indulgent. I knew the piece was inspired by hospitals (with which I am very familiar), and I had seen a promo image of paint splattered on a wall. I was also coming off of a Fringe whirlwind and was looking forward to seeing the show all of the “BEST THINGS TO SEE IN FRINGE” lists had included.
Walking into Magda’s small studio in the ground level of Bok, you automatically feel taken care of. There are cushions on the floor and the audience is comfy and cozy the whole time. Like a sleepover. Fluorescent lights stay on for most of the show. Props are simple and surprising. The most delightful of which include a paper mache tiger and snake, marshmallow rainbow ice creams, a pink IV holding a wig and sequins, and a trophy with no engraving.
The evening is extraordinarily careful and I never felt unsafe once in the space, even as the piece embraced chaos. From the beginning, we are aware that this piece was inspired by Magda’s time as an artist in residency at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the kids she met there, and how it has shaped her life.
I saw this show almost a week ago, and I’m still processing. One of the first segments includes Magda putting an IV tube up her nose and down her throat. She tells us she watched youtube videos to get it right, and if anybody needs to leave or close their eyes, feel free. “I know what this means to me,” she told us, “but I can’t even begin to understand what this means to anybody else in this room.” A fellow audience member fainted during this portion, and Magda stopped her performance to make sure the audience member was okay. We were all in this space together, as a unit, and we were looking after each other. This is because of Magda’s heart and honesty and the semi-non scripted world she created. For the next 45 minutes, we watched her dance and sing and bring joy and thoughtfulness into this little studio. Paint was flung all over two walls of her studio space, and the “mess” was crafted into a beautiful tribute to one little girl Magda had met who left the biggest impact. We, the audience, were given smocks and hoods to cover ourselves in case of rogue paint splatters.
With every serious point about grief and illness and sadness or poignancy, there’s was an equally giddy and childlike observation to follow. The piece became a tribute to these brave kids at CHOP, who carried themselves with joy and strength. At the end Magda said “This is it. I’m going to leave now and I’m not coming back.” And she left.
And that was that. The show was over, and I still cannot stop thinking about it.
I look forward to seeing how the work will grow and evolve, and to hear other people’s experiences with the piece.