Emancipatory Politics – And We All Get Monologues!

Okay, guys, The Bad Oracle here.  LISTEN UP.  We got a new reviewer in the house.  Achilles Feels, you go, you beautiful cunt!  Achilles is a pal o’mine, a staple of the Baltimore theater scene and one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of the stage that I have ever met.  TRUST.  I will, of course, still be doing the majority of the reviewing around here (the site is called The Bad Oracle, not The Bad Something Else) but Achilles will be popping in from time to time.  So y’all bow down and open ‘yo head for some quality reviewing because it’s time to FEEL.  Love, TBO!

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Emancipatory Politics, Photo Creit: Elizabeth Hansen

Currently showing at Mobtown Players in the lovely, yet desolate, environment of Meadow Mill is Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy by Eric Bland. The show is no-too-subtly acronymed to “EP:ART” (in printed materials, online, and wherever annoyingly possible) which I liken to when Rachel Ray says “EVOO. You know, E.xtra V.irgin O.live O.il.” – that moment where a long title followed by an acronym completely defeats the purpose of the acronym. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

The show is difficult to summarize because of its generalized plot and scattered dialogue, but I’ll try. EP:ART, a play with an insanely large ensemble cast, is about a group of wanna-be hippies doing and saying things today’s people would never do nor say. The show is a series of strung together semi-linear vignettes structured around the relationships and autobiographical histories of a tribe of “HAIR”-like radicals. In truth, though, none of them actually do anything remotely radical or even very political. They move across the country, start a commune, have green babies (literally), and complain about how unfair life is. (Get the fuck over it.) EP:ART’s portrayal of starting a commune is more like hibernating than creating actual social or political change in the world. (And seriously, a group of WOMEN cleaning laundry in 5-gallon pails of water on stage is the epitome of typical gender roles, not the start of The Revolution.) None of these things are emancipatory nor political. The sub title A Romantic Tragedy implies that there will be romance, or tragedy, or perhaps a hybrid of both leaning towards comedy. The overarching difficulty I had with this show is that it just needed to pick one thing… emancipation, political action, tragedy, OR romance. You can’t do all five things at once all the time; it’s utterly exhausting for your audience. It feels like Mobtown’s troupe of 15 cast members and 25 (or so) production / creative personnel tried really hard to seamlessly mesh RENT, Les Miserables, and Avenue Q into one new show with a bold new concept of a social media permeated world.

This text is dense, almost as if Molière, Charles Dickens, and Alan Moore (circa Voice of the Fire) decided to get together and write political action themed contemporary poetry intended to be acted in a series of drawn out monologues. What was the playwright thinking? This work is completely inaccessible, unrelatable, and ruthlessly dull. (And why the fuck were there puppets?) In doing a bit of research about this play, I found that it’s relatively new and has not been produced more than three times since its conception in 2010. Prior reviews indicate significant directorial challenges due to the work’s style. The history might suggest that the text could use some good old-fashioned workshoping, paring down, and cleaning up. It’s long, unendingly boring (the audience seemed fidgety and uninterested), and I did not give a rat’s ass about a single one of the characters in the 2½ hour show.

Director Brian S. Kraszewski’s program note proves that there is a lot of heart put into this production (and god knows we love passion, go you!) but he attempted way too many concepts at once. The printed program uses a wretched font and social media-esque abbreviations which is at first cutesy, but quickly migrates to high school musical amateur. The dialogue has been drastically changed to make all the locations mentioned in the script Baltimore-centric. This completely takes the audience out of the moment. Seriously, nobody meets the love of their life on “The Light Rail.” The audience can tell you’ve tried too hard to make the work feel personal by giving it the Federal Hill touch. (PS: Hippies don’t hang out in Federal Hill, and how much did Joe Squared pay to have you mention them 20x along with a 3’×3’ painted logo onstage? #SellOut #ViveLaFrance)

You can tell that the actors truly tried to make this text and theme work, though only about two of them were old enough to understand the context of the emotions that they portrayed. The cast was too young to act this work with conviction. When the show had momentum, good pacing, and energy, I had a delightful time, but those moments were too spaced out to hold my attention. Performances that stood out above the rest were: Beowulf (damn what a lovely voice, Josh Thomas), Charlie (I heard every single syllable, William R. McHattie), Starr (a very lovely southern accent and character Vince Constantino), and Jesse (I totally believed every emotion you had, Rob Vary). The rest of the cast unintentionally blended into homogeneity. Also – all the actor background whispering and overacting needs to cease-and-desist immediately. I was so distracted by that amateur bullshit I had the church giggles. Putting every single actor on stage even when they aren’t plot critical is a wonderful composition, but directors need to focus the audience, not divert them from what is important. This practice works better in larger venues where physical distance helps separate action. The production team’s vision of this show could have done with a larger, more robust theatre, and a less constrained budget; but that did not stop them. The effort in itself is thoroughly applaudable.

The extremely minimal set, designed by Kristie Winther, does not look like it took 5 people to construct (two stair units and some stools?). The backdrop painted for the Arizona scenes was lovely, but Bill Quick’s lighting design left it, along with the actors, in shadow most of the time. Bill, dude… please don’t bring the glaring house lights up just because the actors are in the aisles singing. We didn’t pay to see the people sitting in front of us. Don’t be lazy – hang some lights, use some color, support that emotion for god’s sake! Choreography by Deb Carson could use a clearer style. The dance numbers sometimes seemed out of place, awkward, or too long. I commend her for getting some of those amazing moments and gestures out of stage actors. All the actors should practice snapping their fingers in sync, the opening scene was laughably off-pace. Also: why were the puppets manipulated in such a nontraditional manner? The puppeteer is usually the actor voicing the character therefore facilitating the whole mouth-sync thing; Why would you change that? (Still confused as to WHY there were puppets, even though Kim Stanbro made them look stunning!)

Bottom Line: You can tell Mobtown Player’s version of EM:PART(EVOO) has passion. Perhaps that passion (and the huge production team) lead to too many concepts being executed simultaneously for a script that already has such a muddy plot. Go see this show, you’ll find something you love between the cracks (if not just to hear Josh Thomas sing and see William R. McHattie take off his shirt! #AmIRight!?). Just have a beer or two (and a nice wazz) before you commit to 2 ½ hours of extraneous text. I do commend Brian S. Kraszewski, Mobtown, the production team, and the cast for bringing such an eclectic art-piece to Baltimore’s theatre scene.

Running at Mobtown Players until March 22nd.

SECOND OPINION?

‘Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy’ at The Mobtown Players

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12 comments

  • I find it amazingly ironic that, in order to leave a comment on one of these “reviews”, one is required to leave ones name when the author of these “reviews” does not have the common decency to extend us that same courtesy.

    If you are going to say that you want ‘to help expand what theatre is, can be, and will be in Baltimore’ then why don’t you propose actual suggestions rather than bash things just to bash them? The Baltimore theater community is small but it could be strong if we could all be honest with one another. This catty, petty bullshit isn’t making anyone better.

    I would pay attention to what this person had to say if they had the strength of character to put their name on their opinions rather than hide behind the anonymity the Internet offers those who “don’t use [their]real name here because [they]work at a job where people make a frowny face when [they] say ‘fuck’ “. Because I do
    not need to hide behind that anonymity, I will say this: sign your name and I’ll listen to what you have to say. Sign your name, and I’ll think about respecting your opinions. Sign your fucking name, and I’ll actually be excited to read your reviews, rather than dismiss them for the cowardly diatribes that they are now.

  • I’d like to address a few points; when the show closes (I’m the producer), I’d like to write a longer piece articulating why I find this strange, messy piece of theatre so profoundly moving. But for now, to set the record straight:
    1. Joe Squared did not pay us anything for the right to use its logo. During the process of “Baltimore-izing” the play (playwright Eric Bland was extraordinarily enthusiastic about this), Brian (our director) decided to stage the puppet scenes behind an oversized “pizza box,” and as Joe Squared has (arguably) the most iconic local pizza logo, it made sense to approach them about partnering. They let us use the logo, as well as the restaurant for a 30-minute preview performance, and we gave them a free advertisement in the program.
    2. I am sure our lighting designer would have loved to have had more lights to hang — do you have any you could lend us?
    3. I love you, Kate Shoemaker.
    4. Thank you for coming to the show and taking the time to write about it, Achilles Feel. I appreciate the honesty, if not the tone.

    • and I love you and what Mobtown is doing!!

      and in response to your ‘response’, bad oracle: The point of my post was to encourage transparency not to remain hidden by some alias.

  • Dude bro.. dude... bro

    In response to kateshoe83 : I came across these suggestions while reading the review, and after seeing the show myself, I agree:

    “The overarching difficulty I had with this show is that it just needed to pick one thing… emancipation, political action, tragedy, OR romance. You can’t do all five things at once all the time; it’s utterly exhausting for your audience. ”

    “Prior reviews indicate significant directorial challenges due to the work’s style. The history might suggest that the text could use some good old-fashioned workshoping, paring down, and cleaning up.”

    “Putting every single actor on stage even when they aren’t plot critical is a wonderful composition, but directors need to focus the audience, not divert them from what is important. This practice works better in larger venues where physical distance helps separate action. The production team’s vision of this show could have done with a larger, more robust theatre, and a less constrained budget; but that did not stop them. The effort in itself is thoroughly applaudable.”

    It seems there -was- suggestions on how to make it better -and the tone seems right on pitch with the other reviews on the site… it’s obviously a style thing to be constructively cunty on this site… who cares? It’s funny!

  • “Constructively cunty”. Now you, sir, I like!

  • Chip - been there, seen it, now let it go

    Alrighty then…my own 2 cents – or 5 with inflation: art for art’s sake is bullshit. You can throw as many layers of artistic choices and touches as you desire, but if your saran wrap doesn’t cling, your bullshit is gonna stink. I support this review and find the oracle’s reviews refreshing. There is a lot of good in theatre, but let us be real; a lot is self serving and a lot is bad.
    Too often in theatre and specifically the local theatre scene, I see joint compound and masking tape attempting to hold a production together, while many involved work really, really, really hard at being clever, creative and artistic. Just becasue you can, does not mean you should. Take a step back and look at the big picture.
    In general, Baltimore theatre should focus on:
    First; telling a story – after, of course, we find a story worth telling and one that makes sense with characters your audience can care about. (oh…the audience, the people who pay to sit in that seat and watch your art – not the friends who got comps.)
    Second; assemble a team with skills to tell that story. From front of house, crew, designers, directors, producers, and oh yes, the actors – let us begin by bringing a group of people together who have a vision – a cohesive vision. One of the skills needed in every production is the ability to pick up cues and carry a pace. Whether an actor, stage manager or booth tech – dead space is dead space. Directors…it is your ship guide it, nuture it and stop throwing one artistic choice after another to cover up your or your productions short-comings.
    Third; work within your limitations. Be honest with yourself first – then be honest with your audience. Do not do something if you can not make it look good, and for god’s sake tie up the damn cables hanging down in the middle of your set, or paint that 4″ area of white wall that is glowing overhead against an all black wall, and take the damn barcodes off of your props! Basically, if you can’t take care of the simple things, why should I, as a patron, care about your art.
    This production at Mobtown was not perfect. It was not the worse thing I have ever seen on their stage and it was not the best thing ever staged at the theatre. A lot of hard work went into this production. Blood, sweat and tears – we have all been there. Everyone who has posted here is passionate about theatre – otherwise, we would not post. However, I believe we should all open our eyes and use our other senses just a wee bit more and be honest with what we see on stage and what we do on stage. A crtitical eye is there to provide a point of view and insight, to challenge the status quo, and to enable growth and development. A critical eye can also be a training tool providing food for thought to simmer in the recesses of our minds. A critical eye, and in the case of the Bad Oracle, a critical voice can be sassy and sharp. Not everything is a bed of roses and I for one am grateful that there is someone out there picking out the smelly bullshit.
    As to the issue of the anonimity of The Bad Oracle…does it really matter? Do you know the identity of each one of your audience members who, undoubtedly, have an opinion of your show that they are sharing with friends and family (their review)? How will knowing the identity of this reviewer change anything? Will you stalk them? Bad-mouth them? Will that make your artistic endeavors better? This writer’s anonimity allows, I believe, a great opportunity for honest critique. Like any review, it’s one person’s opinion…or more than one. And they are the audience.

    • Hey, Chip, thanks for the comment. I think you summed up the issue of anonymity well. Thank you so much for reading TBO. You are MY audience and I’m glad to hear you enjoy the site. See you at the show!

    • I don’t have a major problem with the anonymity on this website (though if I were reviewing shows again, I would not choose the anonymous route), but Chip, I think your question cuts both ways. An anonymous reviewer must ask him/herself: “How would I say this differently if my readers knew my identify?” I do not mean the reviewer should ever sugarcoat — be honest and provocative, but also be respectful, because writing under the guise of anonymity exponentially increases the temptation to turn “sassy and sharp” into rude and disrespectful. To segue from criticizing the lighting design into taking a cheap shot at the lighting designer.

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