Review: “The Playground” presented by Vagabonds’ Bridge

Last Thursday night I saw the world premiere of “The Playground,” a play written and directed by Chelsea Anderson, a 2010 graduate of the theatre program at the University of Indianapolis. The play was produced by The Vagabonds’ Bridge Theatre Company and presented at the Wheeler Arts Center in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis.  It was Vagabonds’ Bridge’s inaugural production.

What the Play Is About

“The Playground” is about four people in a coffee shop that suddenly find themselves trapped there by a man that has been reading a paper book over in a corner.  He says he “just” wants to have a conversation – a “real” one, with breathing and eye contact.  Somehow he has locked the two exits and made everyone’s cell phones, laptops, and other devices and land lines inoperable.  He knows everyone’s names and quite a bit of other information about them.

He gets the ball rolling by telling them about the time he was visiting the Taj Mahal and yelled at a little local girl that wouldn’t stop staring at him.

We’re never quite sure if he is God or a skilled but unbalanced human man.  The four captives repeatedly ask him, “Why are we here?”  That question moves back and forth between asking why they are trapped in the coffee house with no outside communication to asking why any of us is here on this planet living a life at this time.

What Worked for Me and What Didn’t

The play is only around an hour long, so you have to be willing to accept that the characters accept their situation and engage in the conversation very quickly.  You also can’t be wondering about what happened to the coffee shop staff.

The situation was not believable to me, but I enjoyed the philosophical exploration anyway.  The play does a good job of staying in the complex middle of our increasingly more transparent, yet paradoxically more disconnected, world.

The more I learn about that complex middle of life, the more I love it, even when I’m feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by it.  So, as I say, I enjoyed this play because it explored that complexity without pretending to have it all figured out at the end of an hour.

I was glad that this play was not, ultimately, just about the importance of going “off grid” now and then for mental health, or just about the question of personal responsibility when it comes to sharing stuff online.  It is about both of those things but it is also about the importance of trying to treat each other with compassion and mindfulness all the time, whether we are together in person or online.

I loved that there was a wealth of unsaid stuff to chew on in between the stuff that was said.

For Example (in random order):

** I cried when the captor shouted, “Don’t call me crazy!”

No matter whom he was supposed to be – God or a human – the captor (played by Pete Lindblom) made me remember that God, even God, can get lonely, too, if no one is truly listening to Him (or Her or It.)  We always have a choice, so even God can’t lock us in a coffee shop and insist that we have a real conversation with Him if we insist on resisting.  But most of us want to at some point, at first because we think we need His approval but eventually because…hey! it’s a conversation with GOD!

If the captor is actually a man (the program says his name is Caleb), well, I can also relate to a man yearning for more consciousness in himself and the people around him.  Again, you can’t force other people to “wake up,” even by locking them in a coffee shop and breaking their cell phones, but I get the impulse.

The playwright didn’t say any of this power struggle/invitation stuff overtly, and I am not explaining my take on it very well, but I love that she did leave space in between the lines of her play for us to think about all this.

** More than once one character says something clever and another accuses him of getting it from a TV show or other source.  More than once, the first character says, “I didn’t steal it, I quoted it.”

But, of course, if you don’t say who you got it from and you act as if you thought of it yourself or that it somehow appeared out of nowhere, you ARE stealing it. I am increasingly mystified by the number of people that don’t understand this, especially online.

On the other hand, I know that getting bogged down with citing everything back to the beginning is unwieldy and impractical, too.  Again, it’s complicated but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to behave in a conscientious manner.

So I was glad that even though none of the characters seemed to get that quoting without attribution is stealing, the playwright was at least drawing attention to the fact that it is important to think about the ethics of using and sharing.  Who was it that said, “I stand on the shoulders of giants”?  I don’t remember, but we all do.*

** This is basically five people standing around talking to each other, which could have been boring but the playwright/director and the actors did a good job of finding the emotional highs and lows, of building up tension and releasing it through laughter or backing down or physical fighting or revelation, and so on.

They also did a good job of moving around on the stage in a way that made sense and kept the audience engaged.  The audience sat on three sides of the stage. The blocking meant that even if an actor’s back was to you for a while, it wouldn’t be that way forever.  I sat to the side and never felt hindered or left out.

** At the end of the play (and yes, this section is full of spoilers), the captor lets everyone go.

The man named John (played by Nathanael R. Pellow), who had been unconscious from the beginning because of his unexamined rage, remains that way and storms out one door.

The woman named Margaret (played by Arianne Villareal), who had been unconscious because of her workaholism, has changed enough to call her mother on her cell phone (which is now working again) as she walks calmly out the other door.

The other two characters…

Well, during the course of the play we learn that Margaret’s timid, verbally-abused intern, Brian (played by Ross Percell), has been secretly checking the Facebook page of John’s timid, verbally-abused girlfriend, Sarah (played by Kyrsten Lyster.)

This is not just because Sarah is blonde and pretty and fragile-seeming and looked fabulous in that photo that she posted of herself in that red dress.

And it is not because Brian is, as Margaret calls him, “disgusting!”

It is because several weeks ago Brian happened to help Sarah get home the night John tried to drug her on their first date.  Brian says he didn’t want to add to Sarah’s problems but he checks her Facebook page frequently to make sure she’s okay.

Sarah hadn’t remembered any of it.  This revelation means, of course, that Sarah confronts John, who denies everything.  She breaks up with him anyway, which just makes him angrier.

At the end of the play, Brian and Sarah are left sitting across from each other, looking at each other.

“Please, please, please!” I thought to myself at that point, “Don’t have Sarah and John go happily off into the sunset together! Please don’t diminish their growth by oversimplifying things now!”

The playwright didn’t. Brian and Sarah have both changed by the time Caleb lets them go, but they haven’t both suddenly become wholly strong and well. There is the potential for them to become friends but there is also the potential for them to fall right back into old patterns. They know this, so they are cautious. They and we hope for the best for them, but we don’t really know what will happen next with them, except that it will involve more than one choice – a continuation along a journey of decision-making rather than one all-powerful decision.

That delicious complexity again!

The playwright/director set it up well and then just let it be.  The two actors conveyed it EXQUISITELY in the final moments of the play through the ways they silently looked at each other.

I am glad I got to see it.

Other Production Notes

There were only three performances of this production of “The Playground.”

From my program, here are the names of the other people involved:

  • Assistant Director = Jason Gill
  • Stage Manager = Danielle Buckel
  • Technical Director = Mason Absher
  • Sound Design = Mason Absher, Daryl Hollonquest, Jr.
  • Lighting Design = Mason Absher, Jason Gill
  • Costumes = Danielle Buckel
  • Props = Jason Gill
  • Marketing Coordinator = Nathanael R. Pellow, Arianne Villareal

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com.

Follow @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

* PS – I thought Isaac Newton said “If I have seen farther it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants,” but apparently there is a record of someone saying something like it centuries earlier! Here is a link to the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants.

(Top photo provided by Chelsea Anderson. Bottom photo taken and provided by Alexis S. Damon. Both used with permission. Actors in the top photo are, from left to right: Krysten Lyster, Nathanael R. Pellow, Pete Lindblom, Arianne Villareal, and Ross Purcell.)

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