February 2, 2007

Contrasting UT shows workshop well together

The title of this week’s University Theater (UT) workshop event, You’re Gonna Love Very Small Important People, may seem a bit overlong, but it ties the three shows together about as tersely as possible. As is usual with workshop shows, Christopher Shea’s “Very Important People,” Roy London’s “It’s a Small World,” and “Old Friends: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim” were placed together not because of any common theme but because they are appropriate to the format. As Augie Praley, director of “It’s A Small World,” put it, “The shows fit together in the only way UT workshops can: Randomly.”

This juxtaposition of shows that would never normally be seen together is, of course, part of what makes UT workshops so much fun to watch. The simple fact that they share the same space, time, and limitations begs the audience to compare and contrast, bringing out aspects of the plays that might otherwise have been overlooked.

While this week’s three shows differ greatly in scale, style, and theme, they each succeed in doing something that almost all theater attempts—they use limited resources to create a sense of something larger than the performance itself can encompass. The ways that these shows go about communicating their themes is remarkably different, but each accomplishes it without the aid of elaborate sets, props, or costumes, as a workshop show demands.

“It’s a Small World” takes place entirely within a stalled Disneyland ride of the same name. The play is driven almost solely by the delivery of London’s loaded dialogue between two people who meet for the first time on the ride.

“The biggest difficulty for me to overcome was the fact that the two actors remain seated, as if in the ride, for nearly the entire play. It is incredibly difficult to keep an audience engaged when there is nothing on stage but exposition and two talking heads,” said Praley. But the audience is engaged, partly by the talents of the actors and partly by the eccentricity of London’s characters and the humor of their situation and interaction.

The second show, “Very Important People,” was both written and directed by first-year Christopher Shea. It uses humorous dialogue in much the same way as “It’s a Small World,” but in this case, it reveals not the struggle to connect between two people, but the internal struggle of a college student trying to compose a paper.

The other characters are the Biblical Eve and a statue of the Virgin Mary. One of the play’s most interesting aspects is creative stage direction that successfully combines, in the play’s own words, “the supernatural and the things of this earth.” For example, at one point, the main character stands at center stage with Mary on a black-box pedestal at his right hand and Eve slinking seductively in her red dress to his left.

The final show, “Old Friends,” directed by Daniel Sefik, is an original revue of the songs of Stephen Sondheim. The obvious tool that this show uses to produce its effect is music. It explores a wide range of emotions and displays both the talents of the actors as exceptional singers and the director as a remarkable pianist.

“It’s always been my personal goal to make the audience reexamine their perception of musical theater, whether by reexamining their expectations or the form’s limitations,” said Sefik on his goals in directing the show. While it does incorporate many of the quirky and cheesy aspects expected of musical theater, that is certainly not the main effect of the production. It causes the viewer to think much more seriously about loneliness and human relationships than one might anticipate.

Workshop shows have a way of benefiting from being shown together, at least in terms of thinking about how they work and why, which is part of the point of the workshops, after all. And no matter how dissimilar, there is always something to be found in common. As Shea said of this week’s production, “the shows all have a sense of humor, and they all attempt to make the audience think, or at least consider something.”