May 25, 2007

Workshop Week reveals world of wackjobs through character-driven plays

Workshop plays at UT are not selected for how they interact with each other or fit into a cohesive performance. However, one cannot help but compare three plays with one another if they are presented together on the same night. And there is one glaring similarity among all three of the Ninth Week Workshop plays: They all focus on people who seem completely insane.

The first and wildest of the three plays is ’Dentity Crisis, written by Christopher Durang and directed by first-year Sarah Pickering. The play focuses on a girl, played by second-year Davida Bantz-Leguard, who is going through a breakdown and is seeing a therapist. It is impossible to encapsulate the hilarity of this play in just a few words-—for starters, the girl’s mother believes she invented cheese in France. The mother, whose absolutely absurd lack of reason is captured wonderfully by the portrayal of third-year Kathleen Bockes, is wooed by her son, her husband, and a French baron, played by fourth-year Jon Malik, who has come to beg her to return to France and continue her marvelous inventions. All of the men, in addition to the part of the grandfather, are played by a single actor, first-year Ben Field, who switches roles as easily as sentences on stage. The poor girl can never be sure whether she is talking to her brother, her father, her grandfather, or her mother’s foreign love affair.

“This play is pretty ridiculous, but it’s funny because it’s a cartoon of family therapy,” Pickering said. “I’m a Christopher Durang fan because he tends to go places in an extreme way that other playwrights wouldn’t dare, or rather, would take too seriously.” The play certainly doesn’t take what seems to be the main character’s severe mental trauma too seriously. No play could be overly serious and stage the invention of banana bread, or feature a therapist and his wife who switch sexes halfway through the performance.

’Dentity Crisis is followed by a play that expects to be taken a little more seriously: The Festivities by Anton Chekov. Chekov’s characters are not meant to be regarded not as totally insane oddballs, but as ordinary people with universal characteristics that often lead to something that resembles insanity. The play starts with Kuzmá, a bank clerk played by first-year Frank White, pacing back and forth, frustrated with his work, his banking partner, and his headache. The title refers to the festivities planned for the bank’s 15th anniversary, which turn out to be a sham. The bank manager, Andréy Shipúchin played by third-year Stefan Kamph, has had his own certificate made and framed to be presented to himself.

As the play goes on, the anxiety of the characters in The Festivities accumulates around commonplace and relatively minor concerns and eventually crescendos to perceived disaster. It is unclear, however, whether the catastrophe is even a catastrophe at all, as the triviality of the concerns and events featured in Chekov’s writing is brought out brilliantly by the actors under the direction of third-year Theo Burtis. The shortest of the three plays, The Festivities is also the densest and most intense.

“I’m hoping that people will see the play and empathize with the characters so that they feel some kind of catharsis,” said Burtis, “but I’m also hoping that people will see reflections of themselves in the parts of the characters that are less appealing, and feel self-conscious such that they check themselves.”

The final and longest of the three plays is The Shared Patio. Originally a short story by Miranda July, it is adapted and directed by first-year Frank Lin. The play features Christine, a woman who appears to spend all of her time at home reading hip culture magazines and obsessively watching the neighboring couple. She watches them from her window, and when she sees them on the patio she makes a note on her calendar of how much time they spent ouside. When the patio is empty, she spends the same amount of time there to assert her equal ownership. “I have to sit out there a lot at the end of the month,” she says with comical sincerity.

The play is carried by the acting of second-year Kat Lieder, who humorously captures the absent-minded, depressed, new-age craziness of Christine so that her nearly constant narration keeps its energy and personality engaging throughout the performance. Christine is in love with her neighbor Vincent, played by second-year Sam Gavzy. He is what she calls a “new man.” New men, according to Christine, are a better kind of man, more in tune with their emotions than women. Christine says, “Sometimes they cry because there’s nowhere for a baby to come out of.”

Despite somewhat similar themes, these are three completely different kinds of production. The tones, styles, and moods presented on stage are on opposite sides of the spectrum from play to play. The only other similarity is that they are all rendered successfully by the excellent acting and directing that workshop plays are designed to showcase.