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!
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.
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