The Arden – 74 Seconds to Judgment

Reviewer: Steele

 

The Takeaways

  • Beautiful performances from an ensemble
  • A refreshing jury play that doesn’t become 12 Angry Men
  • Strong design work

 

In my pockets

I know the playwright and expected a good show. I’m Black, so unjustified murders of Black men hit home for me.

 

Design

A prop designer isn’t listed in the program, but the props and the set at large helped set up the world of the play with great detail (set designed by Dustin Pettegrew). Something as simple as the type of tupperware the character Kim (Julianna Zinkel) brought to the jury room told the backstories of the characters outside the single room the audience was able to see. The leftover Chinese food containers in the fridge, the signage on the bulletin board, etc all created a world we can recognize.

The lighting design (Kathy A. Perkins) was instrumental in illuminating the show within the show. The shift in lighting became more dramatic as the characters went from jokingly portraying the people in the trial to fully embodying them. The lighting was a huge part of transforming the space from the jury room to the outside world and circumstances.

Fight choreographer J. Alex Cordaro’s work made the altercations feel realistic, and created a natural buildup that really made the audience feel the tension.

The costuming (Alison Roberts) felt natural and appropriate for each character. This is direction-related also, but I enjoyed the use of the costume pieces (glasses, hoodies, sweaters) as a mechanism to showcase when an actor was portraying their character vs. when they were portraying someone from the trial. The costume pieces also served as a signal for when a character felt comfortable or uncomfortable in a scene, which was really effective.

 

Performances

I commend all the actors on their work. They brought real humans to the stage. Even characters with opinions I didn’t agree with were relatable and felt real. The shifts that the actors made in their body language and voice when turning into people from the trial were beautiful to watch. Each actor played at least two different people, and those differences were clear and intentional.

 

Direction

Amina Robinson did a really lovely job ensuring very distinct differences in character between the actual jurors and the people from the case they portrayed. She also led the actors in beautiful ensemble work. It was clear from the beginning that these characters were in unique relationships with each other – strangers locked in a room together for weeks. You could tell that Robinson worked hard to get the actors to continue to play to the newness of their relationships as they naturally built a better familiarity with the piece and the physical space onstage through the rehearsal process.

 

The writing

This play was written a few years ago and so is relatively new. This is the second time its been produced. It’s extremely timely in this current era when unjustified shootings of young Black men are an issue receiving a lot of visibility.

You can’t help but compare a jury play to 12 Angry Men but Kash Goin’s script holds its own. The dialogue is smart and fast, almost subduing the audience early on into thinking they could be watching a comedy, and then hitting the audience hard with questions and investigations as the story unfolds and the details of the case become more apparent. He writes believable characters with varying opinions who all can stand up against the criticism if each other.

It’s worth mentioning the twist at the end. We’re all left with our mouths open at the end. It’s very effective.

 

Accountability

This play handled representation and inclusion fairly well. The cast was diverse and the representation of their characters weren’t stereotypical – one of the three black characters is a Black male startup founder, which you don’t often see. The play is timely, and plays on unfortunately prevalent questions surround the unjust killings of Black people. It’s a play for anyone with an open mind on the issue, and I believe it is successful in making typical Arden audience members think about perspectives that run counter to their own.

 

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Opera Philadelphia – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reviewers: Nan and Linor

The Takeaways

  • Stunning design across the board
  • Gorgeous music and musical performances
  • Excellent direction
  • A (mostly) white cast

 

Unload your pockets

Linor: I walked into the show that night in a rough mood, and not feeling particularly well. But I was excited to see a spectacle.

Nan: I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it– I tend to come to opera also excited to see big exciting design, but a bit apprehensive since so much opera is rife with antiquated social politics. I’ve also seen Midsummer about a million times as a play so I wasn’t sure if I’d be as bored with it as an opera.

Linor: Yeah, totally. I have a friend who LOVES Benjamin Britten, but I haven’t heard most of his stuff. I was excited to for that reason too.

 

The design

Nan: Robert Carson and Peter Van Praet designed the lighting for this production 28 years ago, and Adrian Plaut designed the lighting for this revival performance. I don’t think there was a design element I wasn’t impressed by.

Linor: Agreed. It has stayed with me even this long after seeing the performance. There was one moment when a single doorway of light shone on the stage, illuminating I believe Tytania, that was so stunning.

Nan: Yes! I haven’t seen light used so well as a clear part of the storytelling in ages. The whole section where the lighting indicated the opening and closing door was so strongly evocative of being a kid and being aware of light from outside your room showing your parents coming and going. Wow.

Linor: I also think the lighting had such an effective relationship with the set. The green color being evocative of Oberon’s dominion, and blue for Tytania – I noticed that the white fabric on the bed in Act I changed dramatically with different lighting. The white fabric changed from green to blue with the lighting depending on who was the lead in each scene. It was so pleasant and compelling.

Nan: Agreed. Those huge swaths of single color could have been a big challenge but the color theory between the set and lighting was so elegant and successful in evoking many different colors and moods.

Linor: So good.

Nan: I have to say I don’t really know where the boundary is between the music and the sound design in opera. I need to learn more there.

Linor: That’s a good thing to bring up. I mean, here’s what I’ll say: there wasn’t a lot of sound design, you know, separate from mixing and the orchestra/singers. It’s one of the things that I found interesting about opera – different from a lot of musicals, opera intends that the instruments and voices make the sound of the world around us. Or at least, I assume that’s what it intends.

Nan: True. They also don’t have a sound designer listed in the program. I do feel like the storytelling sounds that aren’t strictly musical are still made by the orchestra and voices. I wonder how much of it is just different delegation of jobs in differently titled positions from what we do in theatre.

Linor: Right. Just showing a little of our inexperience with opera. Maybe we should use this as an opportunity to focus on the singing/music.

Nan: Sure! I was really interested in the vocal aesthetic of the show– the tone wasn’t exactly what I’m used to in opera. It felt a bit more modern, and I wonder if there’s a more “Britten-esque” kind of vocal style that is being used. I think I’m mostly responding to the beautiful sort of tremulous quality of the children’s choir of faeries. But I was also really interested in the fact that Oberon was a countertenor.

Linor: I know! It was such a surprise to me. I didn’t really ever get used to it – every time he opened his mouth to sing, I had to readjust my expectations of that role. But I really loved that. It pushed against my internal assumption about what masculine roles are like in opera.

Nan: Same. But that was such a dramatically useful choice for Oberon. He always kind of made me come out in goosebumps. Definitely the most unearthly Oberon I’ve ever experienced.

Linor:  Definitely. I mean I think in general the music was BEAUTIFUL. I now understand why my friend is so obsessed with Britten. Likewise I loved that Hermia was such a lower part than the other women. Everyone had such specific qualities to their parts, and together it was quite dream-like.

Nan: Yes! I think part of why I loved it so much was that I tend to find that opera is especially interested in tradition, that the love interest is a soprano and the imposing older man is a baritone and whatnot, and I think both with design and other choices they really broke the mold in a lot of ways. It makes me really want to learn more about Britten and his work as well.

Linor: Agreed! I appreciated that Britten stuck with the dreamier bits of the show, and didn’t necessarily try to condense the whole plot into his opera. Like, I didn’t care that the King and Queen showed up at the very end of the show. And I felt like he had weighted the Mechanicals as equally as the lovers, which I know does not always happen in the straight stage play. And I loved that about this production.

Nan: For sure. I think he knew what were the good bits and stuck to them, which I appreciate. I loved that he uses pretty much exclusively Shakespearean text (with only six words in the whole score that weren’t Shakespeare, I believe) but made a smart cut. I was also really impressed with the costumes (originally designed by Michael Levine). I’m not really sure where to begin! There was so much going on. I think a lesser designer would have been tempted to just continue with the “beds” motif and have everyone in some kind of pajama, but I think Oberon and to some extent Tytania were the only ones in pajama-like clothes. Really smart use of very different silhouettes too, especially useful in opera where most of the audience doesn’t get a very close look at what’s onstage.

Linor: Right. The story that’s telling is really that they’re the orchestrators of these dreams.

Nan: I think they did a thing that is one of my favorite design choices in Shakespeare, which is to costume each person in what best helps tell the story of their character, even if it doesn’t necessarily all fit together into one big overarching theme.

Linor: Right! I was SO INTO the lovers wearing costumes from all different time periods. It was SO amusing and really surprising.

Nan: You’ve got the lovers in white, but totally different styles– Hermia in a fluffy, big skirted period number, and Helena in a pencil skirt and sort of “nerdy” 50’s look complete with cuffed socks and saddle shoes

Linor: Demetrius in a 30s three piece suit and Lysander looking like Mr. Darcy.

Nan: And then of course the way they all sort of gradually shred their clothes and pick up smears of green as they continue through the woods, and by the end are only in underwear.

Linor:  It’s really quite clever. And I did love the coordination amongst the boys choir, playing the fairies that I assume are Oberon and Tytania’s children. The striking greens and blues in their clothes really helped tell that narrative. It was honestly really liberating to be watching a performance that made such bold choices in its visual storytelling.

Nan: And it gave them so much to do in terms of supporting the stage picture– like twenty little fairy clones, doing synchronized movement, with the red gloves? So visually interesting and fun. Meanwhile, the set (designed by Michael Levine again) – I loved that they were willing to pretty much cut all ties and start fresh design-wise when it came to the Royals and the Mechanicals’ play at the end.

Linor: Right! All of the sudden we were no longer in the forest. The set was one of my favorite design pieces.

Nan: What a versatile design.

Linor: I keep coming back to the forest and the fairies being the King and Queen of dreams, and how every moment in their realm we were surrounded by or in a bed. The bed in the first act was incredible, with those two GIANT pillows. And the beds hanging from the ceilings! I’m fangirling.

Nan: Oh man. Me too. And the many beds in act two that I think can only have been bed frames with supplementary trampoline rigging in them, they were so dang bouncy. And the moon, in various phases of nearness to us.

Linor: Oh I forgot about the moon! That was INCREDIBLE.

Nan: Just beautiful. And the hanging beds being set down and then coming back up with the blanket floor covering attached to make a kind of curtain, which then sort of related to the curtain in the mechanicals’ play? Man. Likewise, I thought the props were great. I loved the huge, three foot long magical flower with its convenient pitcher shape.

Linor: Definitely. And Hermia’s bag that got progressively more raggedy along with the lovers.

Nan: Yes. Super smart and economical.

Linor: I could talk about this design for hours. I think it was the strongest element of the show. 

 

Performances

Linor: I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I honestly hadn’t thought that opera might make me laugh. I was totally floored by the Mechanicals’ performances, particularly Miles Mykkanen as Flute. Or George Somerville as Snout/the Wall. The lovers were also delightful. I keep thinking about Tim Mead as Oberon, though! He had a very different energy than other Oberon’s I’ve seen, and it was a really interesting backdrop against the lightness of his countertenor voice. 

Nan: I definitely shiver a little bit whenever I think about Oberon. Whoo. I was also so pleasantly surprised that Puck was not a singing role.

Linor: I happened to be in the lecture preceding the performance, and the lecturer mentioned that Britten wrote that role specifically for an acrobat/clown. 

Nan: I love that Britten deliberately put a non-opera performer into an opera! Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones) was such a great choice! I had no idea he was such a skilled clown, a total pleasure to watch. I will also say the four featured fairies were also so much fun to watch. Those kids know how to mug. Big kudos to Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and Moth.

Linor: Absolutely! I love a show that integrates kid performers. And treats them like all the others!

Nan: I have never seen such attention toward good comedic bits in opera. The whole section in which Bottom (Matthew Rose) is asking the fairies to do all these tasks is usually cut from the play because nobody wants to hire people to play fairies with two lines each, but they really made a meal of that scene.

 

Direction

Linor: So, correct me if I’m wrong, but Robert Carson also directed this production 28 years ago?

Nan: Looks like he directed the original staging, but this revival was directed by Emmanuelle Bastet. There are a bunch of different credits that I assume reflect the original design and the designers for this revival.

Linor: Yeah, I don’t know how touring productions like these work. In any case, I think the direction for this production was so smart. It brought out the dreamy qualities of Britten’s composition with a kind of wit and levity that I don’t always see in this story.

Nan: Agreed. Not only the stuff that likely carries over from the original production but things that can only happen in the room, like the acting coaching with the kids. This production made me love Midsummer in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid.

Linor: Such a feat!

Nan: It really is. I was incredibly impressed. I also saw some kids in the audience and wished there were more. What a great way to be introduced to opera. In the program chat with the director it says that part of their intention with the design was to create a forest without having to make an actual forest onstage, and I think the creation of that sense of wonder and magic is really unusual and a pleasure to witness.

Linor: Oh yeah, I mean, it’s brilliant. And totally successful.

 

Accountability

Nan: I tend to have a decent amount of side eye for productions that have been running this long but I was so glad to have seen this. All that said, it was a pretty white group of leading performers.

Linor: I’ve only ever seen one other Opera Philadelphia show before, and I saw POC performers within OP’s chorus that filled in casting, but that was also an nearly all white cast, with no POC performers in leading roles.

Nan: Yeah. I don’t mean to inadvertently gloss over any POC that I didn’t recognize, but it’s not like there is any dramatic reason why the show would be so devoid of POC. The fairy choir definitely had a pretty diverse group, at least?

Linor: Right, and those were Philadelphia Boys Choir performers, so I feel like Opera Philadelphia can’t really take credit for that. I should also say though that I believe (though I cannot 100% confirm) that the woman who played Tytania is POC. But I think our criticism still stands.

Nan: I do appreciate the fact that Opera Philadelphia does foster the creation of a lot of new work, and a decent amount of that these days does include POC, but why hasn’t it reached the big mainstage productions?

Linor: Right. I guess something that’s worth mentioning, as I sort of work out where the burden of responsibility is is that I don’t know whether this touring show is cast by Opera Philadelphia, or OP is presenting it and it was cast by another organization. In either case, I agree with you, that there is work to be done to bring the investment in new work and POC artists into the more classic works of opera, in particular to POC performers.

Nan: That’s a good point. I guess I assumed it was a fresh cast because this is an American premiere for the production and at least six of the cast members have worked with Opera Philadelphia before. But it’s possible it’s touring; I know Miltos Yerolemou has been wth the show for awhile.

Linor: I mean, I don’t say that to cut OP any slack, I just have to be honest and say I don’t know much about this process. But whatever the process is, there’s absolutely no reason the main cast has to be all white. (Or mostly all white.)

Nan: I guess I’m still just trying to figure out where I’m at– I loved this show so much, but it was so white (and so straight, and cis, in terms of visibility) and I don’t know if I can say much good about who it is for. Still kinda parsing through that personally.

Linor: The thing that was so amazing for me was the design – and the spectacle. We talked about it the night of the show, but because of the theater industry, I feel like we’ve had to scale down our performances so much. There’s intimacy in a black box, but it was honestly so liberating to see a performance that was that enormous and striking. I know the opera industry is “dying” as much as theater (if not more), and going through the same conversations that we are about race, gender, and representation, and so I agree with you that if we’re not populating this show with people who look like most of the world, it’s not as effective. BUT I do think this production is gorgeous and I would want people to see it. I’m right there with you in the murkiness.

Nan: Well summed up.

EgoPo – Three Sisters Two

9

Reviewers: Janae and Linor

 

The TakeAways

  • Great ensemble work
  • Lively soundscape
  • Incredibly flawed characters
  • Thoughtful and thought-provoking work

 

In our pockets

Janae: I’ve been directed by Brenna before, I’m friends with most of the ensemble, seasonal depression was looming, and I was actively grieving the loss of a loved one.

Linor: I have nothing in my pockets other than the cold and a dear friend onstage.

 

The design

Janae: I felt like Thom Weaver’s lights and scenic design evoked a sense of Heaven and hell and a rapidly deteriorating doll house in between. To the left Heaven being a sleek red dream of a salon in Moscow. For me it felt like the past, a ghost space that could never be attained. The dollhouse in between was slowly being stripped and prepared unconsciously for military occupation. To the right Hell was a a slice of modern military engagement. Filled with vomit and bringing torture/future to the piece.

Linor: Okay, to be honest though, the scenic design felt the most difficult for me. I loved that the primary playing space for the actors was flat and wide, which made all of the action feel like it was trying to burst out of a cartoon background. And yet the most frequently and reliably used part of the space felt unfinished to me. I was frustrated that the more dynamically lit and designed portions of the space were sort of resting rooms for the actors, and that I couldn’t look over to them and see part of the play there. But I agree, the lighting in those rooms was spectacular.

Janae: Interesting. To me it felt as if it former glory had been stripped away over time to pay for necessities. I thought Chris Sannino’s sound was affecting, and certainly helped tell that story. There were real moments when the sound effects made me jump, which helped place me in the action. The soundscape was seamless, to the point that the sound bleeds of Philly actually felt in world. I loved the slick use of reverb denoting shifts in storytelling.

Linor: I agree about the sound bleeds of Philadelphia. There were genuine moments when I didn’t know if what I was hearing was part of the play or on Spring Garden, and I believe that helped make the play feel more immediate. And yes, the reverb was very arresting.

Janae: Natalia de la Torre’s costumes created clean silhouettes, quick shifts, and provided a reminder of how an accessory can define class distinction when underneath it’s all the same basic patterns of humanity that connect us. I frankly would’ve been more interested in a neutral androgyne uniform for all to really fuss with gender but that’s just me personally wanting to smash the binary.

Linor: Mmm. I hear that. I was interested in Natalia’s costumes, but honestly I was thrilled to see actors with really obvious tattoos playing in these characters, and it not feeling like a source of shame or concern. It’s nice to see a costume designer working without feeling the need to cover those up.

Janae: There were a few props (Em Arrick) that grabbed my eye and gave me visceral pleasure. The lotto game and Igor’s oversized suitcase in particular.

Linor: Yes! But the dollhouse in the center of the space to me felt like a HUGE red herring! I saw light-bulbs inside the dollhouse and was positive that they were going to turn on at some point during the play. When they didn’t, I was bummed.

 

The performances

Janae: Wow talk about an ensemble. Love me some good breath work and caring for one another. I was particularly taken with the sisters: Jahzeer Terrell as Olga was attentive, empathetic, and steadfast. Lee Minora’s Irena was earnest and overflowing with whimsy. Colleen Corcoran as Vershinin was a conflicted, complex, hot mess (I mean that in the best way). Such wonderfully flawed creatures. Ugh…aren’t we all. Ross Beschler had some exquisite clown moments.

Linor: I honestly have never enjoyed a performance from Andrew Carroll more. I was delighted by Maria Konstantinidis and her portrayal of Natasha. I was surprised to find Natasha the most sympathetic character of all of them – she’s just trying to run the house, and her husband freaking sucks! I think the most radical thing about this play to me was that the “gender-bending” didn’t serve any plot device, and simply asked the actors to play the truth of their character with no reservations and no twist or subversiveness. The actors did an excellent job of getting me to forget binary divisions.

Janae: Interesting – I did not sympathize with Natasha in that way, though Amanda Schoonover played an excellently weak, miserable, palpably pathetic Andrey.

 

The direction

Janae: I really dug the composition of the vocal soundscape as a transport vehicle through time, matters of the heart, and mind of the characters. The balance of gesture and tableaus had me quite engaged. I found myself leaning forward more than once.

Linor: I think where Brenna Geffers’ direction really shone here was in her commitment to the emotional truth of the story. I’ve never read Three Sisters Two, and I’ve also never read or seen Three Sisters. But someone could have packaged this as Chekhov’s Three Sisters and I would have believed it, because Brenna worked so successfully with the text to tell a story that felt really grand and Chekhovian and Russian.

 

Why this play now?

Linor: Like I was saying before, to me this felt like such a quintessentially Russian play, full of these dramatic, inevitably flawed and failing characters. It’s really interesting to me to understand the context in which the piece was written, and the choice to bring the play back now. I want to commend Three Sisters Two’s dramaturg for providing some much-needed and welcomed background information that really helped me frame the play. It is an interesting exercise to imagine this play as serving some sort of vehicle for oppressors losing their privilege to – what, reflect? Bemoan? Wail with catharsis? If Reza de Wet wrote this in a moment when white people in South Africa were adjusting to a newly established set of priorities, it feels a little bit like a space for white people to tear at the hair about not being on top anymore which I guess I’m not as interested in. I think a little bit about the intended or unintended consequences of programming this in EgoPo’s South African season – most of the target theater-seeking audience in the house the night I went to see it were too stuck on the role of gender in the casting to be able to think critically about what it might mean to program a story about an aristocratic family no longer wielding the privilege that it’s used to. I like the play a lot, though I do wonder whether the play itself succeeds as a thought exercise, and I do question whether Brenna Geffers’ direction played to that larger dramaturgy. I don’t know, thoughts?

Janae: I feel that this production is being specific to the interwoven levels of power dynamics that we here in Philadelphia are grappling with: race, gender, class. Could each of those themes be dug into deeper? Perhaps focusing on just one theme would have been more effective in theory, though I still feel like I got it. To me it seems we’re all casualties of a war machine and the sooner that we acknowledge the unnecessary segregations that place us “above” one another and agree that were on the same level (this planet) the sooner we can confront said war machine instead of “soldiering on with the old ball and chain.” All that said I agree that there was a contingency of folks in the audience who were fixated on gender unnecessarily and that’s just telling of how far we have to go.

Linor: Totally.

 

Accountability

Linor: Like I said before, casting masculine-presenting bodies in female roles and femme-presenting bodies in male roles for me did nothing to accentuate the story, and I loved that. During intermission, I overheard one of the older women next to me talking to her friend and grumbling about how the “gender-bending doesn’t really do much for the play,” and to be honest, I think she’s right. But all of the actors played their parts beautifully, and isn’t that kind of the point of gender being the dumbest, most arbitrary construct? It felt a little liberating to be watching, for example, Colleen Corcoran play Vershinin as the character was written, and do it really well. My one accountability question is on the subject of race. I just can’t forget that this play was written by a white South African and in a time in South Africa just after apartheid has ended. Race in this play was as fluid and unsubstantiated as gender. We weren’t really supposed to notice which actors were white and which were not, just as we weren’t supposed to notice which were women and which were not. But I do question whether that choice continues the conversation the play started? Although, on the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily want a South African play written by an Afrikaans playwright to be produced in Philadelphia without people of color in the room – I don’t know. What do you think, Janae?

Janae: I think the casting was more color conscious than color blind, though I wouldn’t be opposed to a bit more color onstage. That said it wasn’t anemic. The piece feels to me like an offering to acknowledging preconceived notions within oneself without it overtly pointing a finger at bad behavior. A question I would pose though is that does anything have a hard end date? Did apartheid really end? Did the civil war in America ever really end?

Linor: Ugh, so true. You’re right.

The Wilma – Romeo and Juliet

Reviewers: Nan and Janae

The TakeAways

  • Stunning design
  • Relatively accessible and modern
  • Rich performances
  • Activation of the text in a new way

 

In Our Pockets

Nan: I love Shakespeare, and at the same time am so tired of theaters producing his work. It feels like the lazy choice. I’ve seen a couple of Shakespeares at the Wilma and had some opinions about the balance they strike between the text and more expressive performance choices. I heard about the changes they made to try and make the show more accessible, and I was interested to see how Anthony Martinez-Briggs and Gracie and the SoBeautifuls’ collaborative contributions would factor into cultural accessibility for this production.

Janae: I’ve done the play three times and grew up loving that Baz Luhrmann movie.

 

Design

Nan: The lights (Maria Shaplin) and the set worked together seamlessly– what a deft collaboration.

Janae: I agree. There were times when I found myself totally entranced by Shaplin’s dreamscape. I especially enjoyed the meeting of the lovers at the party.

Nan: Meanwhile, I didn’t really notice Chris Sannino’s sound design because of the prevalence of the live music.

Janae: I liked how it was peppered throughout. There were a couple of moments in which I wished the sound played a bigger role and got a bigger boost!

Nan: I think costume is where I want to see the most world building, with the heaviest lifting. Vasilija Zivanic’s costume design was able to be fairly understated and utilitarian, which impressed me. I appreciated that it didn’t try too hard.

Janae: I like that. Utilitarian. In the footwear especially you could see the restriction and freedoms of the women’s roles in particular.

Nan: Yes! Suli Holum’s stilettos (and tiny little politician’s wife dress). I felt like the actors had input in their costumes, which may or may not have been true, but is something I really appreciate seeing onstage. I like aesthetic that is aggressively story-driven. Likewise, I really enjoyed the set (Matt Saunders) right off the bat– I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fringe curtain utilized so spectacularly well, and I loved that it was both a curtain and a scrim and also had this amazing organic movement (unless there was a fan up there?) that created this unreal sparkle– what a versatile element to use as the only real set piece, repeated over in different sizes. I also thought the rolling fringe set pieces were all organized in very skillful set pictures.

Janae: I like when you say there was an unreal sparkle in the world, in this most glamorous of prison walls. I think that it speaks very much to the vision of our current world, the socio-economic separations and the fact that not all prison walls look like they do on the screen. They can also be decadent homes.

Nan: This is a little thing but I also really appreciated that the characters had to physically climb the back wall. I think it was very smart to have a physical wall of that height in the set. I had never really thought hard about the fact that Romeo has to climb a serious wall to get to Juliet’s balcony. It’s the mark of successful design when it gets you to rethink something you’ve seen way too many times.

Janae: Moving onto choreography.

Nan: There wasn’t a fight choreographer credited, which I guess means that Silvana Cardell, who is credited just as “choreographer” built those moments? I was surprised that there was no fight specialist in as fight-heavy a show as R&J, and though the knife fights sort of did what they needed to do, I don’t think the violence really “read” or had high enough stakes. I did enjoy Cardell’s work in the dance choreography, though.

Janae: I agree. I feel like there was nostalgia woven in a bit which left me feeling giddy. The violence was quick and dirty. But you’re right – I’ve been puzzling how distant I felt from the fights, even in the vault.

Nan: Major props to Gracie and the SoBeautifuls (Gracie Martin, Matt Mastronardi, Jordan McCree, Evan Raines) for their work. They sounded amazing and were also able to successfully integrate with the action for most of the show. I especially loved the moments in which Gracie or band members physically joined the action. I am really impressed by Martin’s ability to sound beautiful and also achieve raw and sometimes terrifying emotion in her singing voice.

Janae: Gracie Martin is a siren. I so enjoyed the composition and honestly would’ve wanted a bit more music throughout.

 

The performances

Nan: I think for the most part the performances were pretty understated. It didn’t evoke a big emotional response in me, but I was okay with that. I guess when tackling subject matter as well-trodden as R&J you really have to decide as an actor whether to find a fresh “in” or just play it simply and honestly. I think for the most part, the Wilma actors were mostly playing simplicity and honesty. In some ways it feels a hair disappointing because when I’m watching Shakespeare I want to see huge, earth-shaking emotion, but at the same time, it was a bit of a relief to just be able to sit back and catch what I could of the poetry, played simply and not too overwrought.

Janae: But I feel like there were some great, larger moments: Krista Apple as the nurse blathering on about young Juliet landed me right in the many conversations I’ve had with family on the phone. Taysha Canales as Juliet was exuberant and intellectual. Matteo Scammell as Romeo was emotional and prone to the fantastical.

Nan: Agreed about Krista Apple! I think the most successful performances were actually the ensemble roles where the actors had more of a chance to make bigger choices. Apple’s overly voluble but very funny Nurse, Suli Holum’s harsh but calculating Lady Cap, Anthony Martinez-Brigg’s Mercutio (which went off script but was more successfully ribald and jaunty than any Mercutio I’ve ever seen). Even Kevin Meehan’s Benvolio, who I’m pretty sure I went to college with.

 

The direction

Nan: I was surprised by how accessible this ancient show was, given my past experience of Wilma-style Shakespeare. I was skeptical about the decision to include a “chorus” of unpaid current University of the Arts students. Going in, I worried they were going to be a halfhearted (and cheap) attempt to bring more youth and color to the show. It felt tertiary and lower stakes, a way to engage with high schoolers in the audience by having young people onstage too, but not in roles with too much power. But in the end I really enjoyed the chorus; they added a lot to the show, and I wanted them around and speaking more. They served as necessary connective tissue, but if they’re ultimately the heart of the piece, why aren’t they playing speaking roles? I loved the choice to give Anthony Martinez-Briggs some free reign with Mercutio, but I wanted way more. When he came on as a sort of MC at the beginning I got so excited, but his presence really dropped off part-way through act one and then after dying, he didn’t re-appear again at all. So wasteful! I want an Anthony Martinez Briggs directed and MC-ed and starring role R&J.

Janae:  I would be curious to see how the young adults respond to the piece. I felt like there were moments that hedged on a nostalgia directed at my generation. I wonder what someone who is older thinks of it. I too wanted more done with the chorus. They felt foggy to me; I feel like I wanted them to connect closer to the meat of the world, especially in the beginning, so that their departure at the end would be more pronounced.

 

Why this play now?

Nan: This is definitely not a new play but I appreciated the willingness to change it up! I live for Martinez-Briggs’ Queen Mab freestyle, and the addition of the chorus’ rejection of the world of the play at the end was scary and eye-opening in a very good way.

Janae: Agreed.

Nan: I suppose I can appreciate the decision to do the play as a teaching tool (though why we insist that Shakespeare is the only core curriculum playwright, rather than POC and/or living playwrights I don’t know), but to be honest, even while I enjoyed this production, I don’t think anyone needs another dang R&J. The chorus’ three line reclamation of agency at the end was a first step into a really good reason why to still do this play, but I don’t know if that was really addressed otherwise.

Janae: I wonder what that reclamation of agency looks like at the Wilma.

Nana: It was definitely pretty frustrating to be granted a taste of that and end the play there.

Janae: More agency for the young people in this play!

 

Accountability

Nan: I’m not a fan of the fact that they’re not paying the UArts chorus members. They add so much to the show and clearly work hard. They’re mostly nonspeaking but also move set pieces– and not even a stipend? Really, Wilma? I think R&J, as written, is really only for older people who like Shakespeare and can afford to come to the theatre for things they’ve seen before. The Wilma sort of did better than that, and I hope the students who see the show will get more out of it than they would from a more mainstream production, but I’m not sure how much more there is to get. I appreciate that the cast included POC, but I’d have liked to see some non cis men in usually male-assigned roles, any kind of queerness (in terms of sexuality or trans* inclusion). They touched on some themes that are more here and now, but didn’t really commit to addressing them.

Janae:  There were some themes and characters that felt glanced at but not addressed in full. The apothecary/drug exchange in particular stuck out to me in this production.

Nan: I was also confused about the way the apothecary was depicted vis a vis drug use, social context, etc. The good thing about this productions is that it made all the issues feel relevant and contemporary – but because the play is the way it is, those issues and themes were picked up, examined briefly and then abandoned.

Janae: Say more.

Nan: We’ve got this question about how young people can regain their agency because they are tired of living in a world where teenagers kill themselves and each other based on miscommunication and inflexible family structures. But regaining their agency is only introduced in the last three lines, and then blackout. There’s the wall that Romeo has to scale to get to Juliet, and then Benvolio climbs to talk to banished Romeo– a motif that only appears those two times. Mercutio and Benvolio street harassing the nurse, and then we move past the moment like nothing happened. Tybalt smoking a joint and snorting something outside the party, the apothecary made up like an addict/grim reaper. Would you have to majorly change the play to accommodate investigating these issues in full? The Wilma seemed like they demonstrated a willingness to change the play to make it more accessible, so why not really narrow in on any of these issues? Or do a modern play that tells a similar story but actually really talks about these questions?

Janae: True. Now you’ve made me really wanna see an R&J that goes way off the rails. Like a Tybalt & Nurse or a Mercutio & Benvolio or an Mercutio & Nurse.

Nan: Yes please.

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.

Shreshth Khilani – Immigrant Kitchen

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Reviewer: Janae Goldsmith
In My Pockets
I’m a queer poc living in West Philly. I had just flown in the night before from my old stomping grounds with a bagful of memorabilia and a heart full of family. I enjoy experiences that don’t fit into the “traditional” theatre model. I met Shreshth in the performing arts community, and we’ve broken bread before.
Design
Immigrant Kitchen is part play part chef’s table. A journey in myth, memory, and communion – seamless storytelling in an intimate space. Immigrant Kitchen is simultaneously unfolding and sharing old memories while making new ones.
The design to my eye was entirely practical. The piece took place in a lovely West Philly community house. The feeling was no frills, just warm and real. I’d say the ingredients and the cooking ware were the strongest elements of design – if not the characters themselves. Lentils and okra have taken on new meaning for me, and I must say I love me some pressure cooker action woven into storytelling.
Performance
Shreshth Khilani’s performance is one of a life still being lived. To that end, in a sense, life is a performance that begins before our arrival and continues after the audience has left. Shreshth weaves in and out of the roles of host, storyteller, and facilitator seamlessly. The moments of stillness and circling gave me a sensation of something churning beneath the surface that inevitably must be released.
Direction
Jeremy Cohen’s direction is deft, threading together multiple ingredients with strains of linear and nonlinear narrative. The piece also carved out space for the audience’s journey, and for any myriad of responses therein.
Writing
Immigrant Kitchen begins with the breaking of bread (papad – the only thing served that we did not cook ourselves), and a guessing game of ingredients. We discuss a foodie article in the New Yorker that lead to an approximation of nostalgia. This conversation planted seeds for the narrative, and opened the space up for whatever input or memories might arise among individuals. We followed Shreshth on a journey of sense memory and nostalgia, a story of femininity, maternity, queerness and becoming. We learned lessons from Arjuna and Amba, all while participating in the production of a delicious and medium spicy meal which we ate after the show was “officially” over, though the sharing of intimacy continued.
Accountability
Immigrant Kitchen is for folx that want to be themselves and be with others. This play is for immigrants, emigrants, queer, gender nonconforming people. It’s for people who have traveled here and are willing to share and listen and learn on the journey.
It’s always refreshing and heartening for me to see a queer, gender nonconforming, POC sharing their story and spearheading the project in its entirety. I look forward to more!

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!