Indy Theatre Habit

05
Apr

Theatre Review: “This” at the Phoenix Theatre

Last Thursday night I drove to the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis to see the Midwest premiere of “This,” by Melissa James Gibson.  It was directed for the Phoenix by Dale McFadden, assisted by Jonathan James Courtemanche.  It was produced by the Phoenix’s Producing Director, Bryan Fonseca.

It is a smart, delicately funny show that made me wish I had brought a whole box of tissues with me.

What the Show Is About

Four 40-ish people that have been friends since college – plus one newcomer – play a party game one night that unintentionally triggers an emotional earthquake, which in turn triggers deeper explorations of previously ignored feelings. 

One woman is approaching the first anniversary of her husband’s death.  One man is beginning to re-evaluate his (he thinks) self-involved life.  A couple of people that have been married and childless for twenty years have not slept in weeks because they now have an infant.  All four of them are second-guessing their careers and recalibrating their relationships to each other.  All four of them are beginning to realize that how they would like to be regarded is not how others see them, and it may never be.

This (“This,” heh) is a coming-of-middle-age story, familiar yet fresh.

Artistic Considerations – The Script

One reason it is fresh is because of the playwright’s deceptively playful language.  I don’t have any examples to give you because I was sitting mere feet away from the actors and I didn’t want to distract anyone by jotting down my favorite lines.  (And the many scene changes happen at the speed of light so I couldn’t scribble in the dark the way I sometimes can.)

However, I can tell you that sometimes the characters speak in unison in a way that probably prompted a “Jinx!  You owe me a Coke!” comment when they were younger.  Sometimes a character will ask a question that is obviously about one topic but another character will answer it with a question that plays with it instead of answering it.  All of the conversations are bright and talky.  All of them include verbal riffs on the themes of boundaries – acknowledging them, protecting them, renegotiating them, filtering them – and waiting, and sorrow, and more.

Sometimes during the show I would catch myself thinking, “Oh, people don’t talk like this in real life. They aren’t this verbally agile and their conversations aren’t this layered with symbolism!” 

But then I would remember all of the gifted hipsters that I know.  They talk exactly like this!  They talked this way when we were all trying to appear intellectual in college and they talk this way now when we are all just a little more tired and practical all of the time.

And even if the conversations in this play did not quite sound authentic, I would still love them for their poetic, artistic qualities.

At the end of the play, my face was wet and I was clapping enthusiastically, but I didn’t stand up because I was also thinking, “Okay, but wait.  I loved this, but who was it about?  What was really going on here?”

Now that I have had a few days to think about it, I realize that it is about all five characters equally.  There is a plot to “This” but the narrative arc is smoothly submerged in the clever banter, so what the play feels like is a slice from a communal tree showing the many rings, or a wedge of soil sample showing the layers of rich sediment, or a cruelty-free, cross-section microscope slide of a living organism that has a few decaying cells. 

In other words, there is a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, like our teachers said all stories have to have, but they are subtle, and there is a very clear sense that “before the beginning” and “after the end” also exist.  In some ways, we are only getting a peek into the five characters’ lives.

Which is, when I think about it, a very respectful way of writing about them.

And, since I related strongly to every single character, I appreciate that.

I imagine the title comes from the playwright saying, “This time of life – when people haven’t even quite realized that they are entering middle age, let alone thought about male or female menopause or having a midlife crisis or how to make the next twenty or thirty years count – is fascinating.  Here, look at this…and this…and this…”

It could have been an overwhelming hodge-podge of topics but somehow it all works.

Artistic Considerations – This Production

The strong ensemble of actors in this particular production certainly helps make it work.  I imagine that director Dale McFadden was the catalyst for their tightly-paced, increasingly intense interactions. The actors’ individual portrayals are seamless, too.  Unlike the characters in many teenage coming-of-age stories, the characters in a coming-of-MIDDLE-age story have a lot of slashes after their names:

Donna J. Edmond plays Marrell, a jazz singer/wife/new mother/grounding rock.   I think if asked, Marrell would say that she likes people to think of her as a status quo challenger.  She is politically active, after all, and she is in a bi-racial marriage.  But in many ways she is actually a rule follower.  Donna conveys the subtle dichotomies in Marrell’s earthy personality with wit and grace.  The way she holds her newborn infant, too, is very believable.  (Surely it is a doll?  There is no baby listed in the program.)  Also, this isn’t a musical, so I wasn’t expecting to hear live singing, but we do get to hear Donna sing and it is a treat. 

One of Marrell’s best friends is Jane, played by Jennifer Johansen.  I have loved Jennifer’s work in shows by the Indiana Repertory Theatre and the ShadowApe Theatre Company, but I don’t think I have ever seen her work in such an intimate space as the Phoenix’s main stage.  Good heavens, up close she is gorgeous!  And riveting as Jane – a beautiful poet/test proctor/mother/widow who hates games and wishes that people thought of her as having a ready smile.  Jennifer skillfully portrays Jane as both irresistibly present and subconsciously missing in action.

Their friend, Alan, is played by Scot Greenwell.  Alan is a mnemonist/entertainer/alcoholic/single man/gay man/rascal who is tired of waiting for…something.  Some kind of redemption or connection or…something.  He scorns “do-gooders” but he wants his “dear friends” to think of him as someone admirable.  He is a tad bitter, but he hasn’t stopped hoping for…something.  (I think that’s why he always clicks “reply all,” so as not to miss any chances at finding that something.)  He also thinks that if he can begin doing good, there is a still a chance for him to make his life matter.   He doesn’t realize that it already does matter and that he already helps the people around him.  Scot’s nuanced portrayal of Alan is, itself, very dear in a good way:  Alan is a witty, intricate, un-slot-able man and friend.

Ryan Artzberger plays Marrell’s husband, Tom – a carpenter/husband/former college grounds keeper/new father/adulterer.  I crush on Ryan every time I see him on stage, but in this role he is even hotter than usual.  Tom is not the “bad guy” in this piece – no one is – and Ryan’s sensitive portrayal of him shows both the innocent cluelessness and the immature cluelessness (there is a difference!) in Tom’s character.  Tom wants to be seen as, and be, someone who is truly loved, but he is afraid he never will be.

Eric J. Olson plays Jean-Pierre, a doctor/Frenchman/handsome man/potential lover.  Eric’s seemingly effortless portrayal of Jean-Pierre brings out the sexy irony in him: he has the intoxicating attractiveness of any foreigner but especially a foreigner that is comfortable with sexual intimacy…plus the compassionate, essentially detached quality that any good healer needs to have in order to be effective.  Eric as Jean-Pierre shows us what it’s like to show up and be reasonably interested in other people, but not become enmeshed in their drama.

I didn’t consciously notice while I was watching the show, but I am delighted now, looking back, to notice the many ways in which the Phoenix’s design team also illuminated and enhanced the play’s themes.

In designer Linda Janosko’s set, for example, the separate homes of the friends overlap as if there is no boundary between them, just like several aspects of their lives.  They are mostly delineated only by Laura Glover’s precise lighting design.  A scene in a night club steps across the traditional boundary between stage and audience: the Fourth Wall is still more or less intact but only because strangers in a crowded club don’t usually talk to each other.  The actors are literally inches away from the audience members in the first row, as if they were all sharing a table in the club.

And the insouciant painting of a little girl with flowers on the back wall!  It is highlighted before the show begins, perhaps to foreshadow the middle-aged realization that “growing up” is a life journey, not something you complete when you turn 18 or 21 or…

Who Did What

In addition to the people already named:

Andrew Hopson designed the sound.  Ashley Kiefer designed the costumes.  Rachel Lambert was in charge of props.  Kemmie Mitzell was the French tutor.  Tom Robson was the dramaturg.  Musical arrangements are by Terry LaBolt.  Murray McGibbon is the Television Host Voice (on Alan’s TV appearance.)  Nolan Brokamp was the technical director.  Cody Grady is the light and sound operator.  My program also lists Anthony Morton as assistant stage manager, but it does not say who he assists.  Maybe he is the stage manager, too?

Audience and Appeal Factors

The press release that I received from Lori Raffle, Marketing and Media Relations Director for the Phoenix, says that this show is “best described as a melancholy comedy” and that it premiered Off Broadway at the end of 2009.

It sort of reminds me of the movie “The Big Chill.”  However, “This” is wittier, rounder, and more cathartic.

There is no nudity or violence, and I don’t remember any curse words, but because of the references to death and adultery and because of the play’s themes, I would call this a show for adults only.

It took me a HECK of a long time to figure out how to write about “This” – and I’m still not sure I nailed what I want to say about it – but I very much enjoyed it.  I would like to make time to see “This” again.  It resonated deeply with me, but I think it is about everyone, eventually.

Box Office

“This,” by Melissa James Gibson, continues at the Phoenix Theatre through Sunday, April 24, 2011.  Thursdays and Sundays are Cheap Seats Nights, thanks to Duke Energy.  For more information and to make reservations, please visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org or call the box office at 317-635-PLAY (7529).

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

P.S. – Follow me (@IndyTheatre) and/or the topic #indystage on Twitter.com.  I never tweet during a show (and I beg you not to take your phone out during a show either, for any reason! light is as distracting as noise!) but I often tweet first impressions during intermission or immediately after a show.

P.P.S. – Photo above was taken by Zach Rosing.  Back row, left to right: Donna J. Edmond, Ryan Artzberger, Scot Greenwell, Eric J. Olson.  In front: Jennifer Johansen.

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