Just in time for midterms, UT serves up some schaudenfraude

UT makes suffering students feel a little better with stories of pain and suffering.

By Jessen O'Brien

For most students, fifth week is rife with stress and panic as midterm assignments and tests seem to attack from all sides. UT’s fifth week workshops, collectively titled Self, Torture, and Anxiety, appear to honor this anguished time, but also explore moments of sorrow more traumatic than midterms, perhaps providing us with some much needed perspective on our academic woes.

The first play, Kissing Christine by John Patrick Shanley, focuses on a first date. Christine (Haley Doner) and Larry (Tom Weisgarber) go through all the requisite moments of awkwardness, with the occasional interruption of their overfriendly server (Crystal Croyl). Despite the brevity of their time together, Christine and Larry connect almost immediately as two people dealing with troubled situations.

Throughout the play, the audience watches Christine and Larry grow increasingly intimate. From they audience’s perspective, they’re in profile for most of the play, emphasizing the couple’s detachment from the rest of the world. The server breaks this mood, providing comic relief as the tension between Christine and Larry builds. Croyl and Doner convincingly portray two people surprised by the understanding between them, struggling to find something solid in their lives.

Variations on the Death of Trotsky by David Ives is a rather surreal interpretation of the last day in the life of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. Mrs. Trotsky (Autumn McConnico) continually explains to her husband (Graham Albachten) that a mountain climbing pick has been smashed into his head. She reads him encyclopedia entries outlining the facts of such an injury while he speculates how he ended up with a mountain pick lodged in his head.

By far the most humorous of the four plays in the workshop, this one act deals with issues of identity and mortality. Albachten’s Trotsky is utterly sincere, genuinely unable to understand why his gardener Ramon (Nicho Kelly) would kill him, seeing as how Ramon is a proletarian. Kelly's and McConnico’s exaggerated dancing is a particularly funny moment, and simple physical humor like this offsets Trotsky’s bizarre process of understanding throughout the play.

The third play, The Informer by Bertolt Brecht, transports the audience from Mexico and Germany. The Informer centers on a family in the midst of Nazi Germany and the everyday paranoia under the regime. The Wife (Bryn Adams) and Husband (Marc Amante) fear that anyone, including the Maid (Emma Gist), the Boy (Caroline Cox-Orrell), and each other, may have informed the government of unpatriotic behavior. Fluctuating power structures outside the home cause a deterioration of those within it, as the two grown adults begin to fear everyone, including their own son.

Cox-Orrell is largely responsible for The Informer’s humor as she innocently plays with blocks and steals sugar while the household tension grows. Adams and Amante manage to convincingly accuse and support each other simultaneously. They maintain an underlying devotion even as they yell at each other, certain that the government will soon bear down upon them.

The final play, Chushingara translated by Donald Keene, explores suffering in ancient Japan. An ensemble of five students (Ian Morrow, Caroline O’Donovan, Sam Pollock, Christopher Shea, and Tamera Silverleaf) tells this story of revenge. Chushingara explores concepts of honor and revenge dissonant with those of modern, Western society. However, while the characters’ reactions might seem strange at first, they all align with a system of honor that becomes increasingly understandable as the play continues.

The play is choreographed in the style of Kabuki theater. Each actor plays multiple parts, and gender roles are often swapped for comedic effect. It is difficult to execute such a specific style, especially following three more immediately accessible plays. Nevertheless, each cast member fully commits to his or her role, providing a memorable performance.

Overall, Self, Torture, and Anxiety is a wonderful example of schadenfreude, or happiness at the misfortune of others. Although all contain humorous moments, none depict particularly happy characters or pleasant circumstances. However, they transform the lives of midterm-addled audience members from miserable to manageable while simultaneously prodding them into thinking about how people cope with suffering in different times and cultures.