The Benefactor – Serf Control
A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS
Stillpointe Theatre is producing The Benefactor by local playwright Kimberley Lynne from February 12th-21st. Located at their new digs in the Emmanuel Episcopal church on 811 Cathedral Street (directly across from Milk & Honey) the company seems to be doing well in the new (to them) space.
I look at Ryan Haase, Artistic Director of STI, and give him the stink-eye. “We’re already 10 minutes past eight, Ryan. ‘Sup with that?” ‘It’s ok, it’s all part of the show,” he reassures me. Suddenly a strange overhead female voice is heard “Pod [insert random number here] will be ready for viewing shortly, please wash your hands before entering the birthing chamber” (or something along those lines).
Uhh…what? Did she say “birthing chamber?” I stare blankly ahead.
I wait around a bit in the lobby while a few more minutes pass. “Please remove your shoes, the patient is ready to receive you,” or whatnot blasts over the sound system.
Wait, I gotta take off my shoes too? I’m not wearing matching socks, people (looks around to see if anybody is watching). I discreetly slip off my shoes and make my way into the performance space. I try to cover my feet with my bag so nobody notices the fashion-faux pas. Achilles must present an air of perfection at all public appearances.
STI’s team, Sound Engineer, Stephen Frank, Set Designer, Nolan Cartwright, and Director Amanda J. Rife were very successful in creating a theatre experience that bordered on immersive. The performance was exhibited in the round, with a large birthing chair (ewww!) in the dead center of the room. The seating system wrapped the space with flats which created a sort of hospital-pod environment. This configuration left a small, tightly confined area for the actors. One automagic door opened and closed Trek-like as performers entered and exited the pod. This design was brilliant, effective, and really supported the action.
The story, set in the “not-so distant future,” is a simple play on the contemporary extremes of inequality. The environment set forth by playwright Kimberley Lynne is one of patriachal sexism. Women are stripped of possessions and rights and used as baby-making machines; the balance of power is much more dramatically skewed then it is today. This overtly feminist approach could lean towards the obvious, but Lynne does a great job of beating us over the head only slightly. Her push is not brutal, but almost matter-of-fact. A very pregnant Judith Waterson, former painter and professional surrogate to several (!!MANY!!) children, is contracted to discuss art with ghost-writing author David. He needs a woman’s “voice” for his new book and as he is “genetically inclined to be homosexual” we get the drift that this is a man’s world. David just don’t get the female of the species (I hear ya, grrl!). Through his many visits, her need for slippers, and a share in the love of period (!!) art, they build an illegal bond and share the ins-and-outs of the many secrets of their respective lives. He’s transfixed, she’s happy to have company. The relationship is not unlike the many relationships we see day-in and day-out today. It works, though it is flawed.
The story is, at first, a bit off-putting. It feels contrived and deliberate. But the actors pull it off with such a suave performance that it’s easy to get wrapped up in The Benefactor’s world. The way the ensemble, especially Courtney Proctor as Judith, the baby-making machine, and Derek Vaughn Brown’s David, the titular “Benefactor”, play the story almost tongue-in-cheek allows this difficult-to-stomach society to feel disturbingly natural. Even in such close quarters, the performers keep a perfectly steely demeanor and distance from the audience. This is not Ayn Rand’s Utopia. Not once was eye contact made, not once did they break character. I did not feel in the way, I felt like a spy in a world I should not have been permitted. Judith’s midwife, Maria, (Joan Weber) is part nurse-worse part overbearing grandmother. She fixes and fuddles over her fetus-factory and you can see that she really does care for her job as a berating birthing facilitator. Costumes by Danielle Robinette worked well. I only wish Vaughn-Brown’s many pants fit better. He’s got a nice dairy aire and it was hidden under some awkward pants poofs.
At several intervals between scenes, the stage goes dark, the birthing chair pulsates, and we see movement interludes exploring the growth of the surrogate’s fetus. Guided by Marissa O’Guinn, it’s weird, experimental, and slightly disturbing what some of these faux-fetuses do (in nude-colored onesies no less!). Overall, though, it’s a nice diversion from the droll on-and-on of the play’s non-plot. At first I wanted to giggle, but then I started rooting for their development. Then, eventually, I realized how perfect the movement felt. Corey Hennessey, Lawrence J. Bryant III and Amanda Boutwell are beautiful and eloquent.
The Bottom Line: This show is exactly what Baltimore needs right now. It’s not exactly immersive, but it’s new, thoughtful (without being annoying or in-your-face) and inspiring. The entire ensemble, movement team included, should be commended for their efforts towards exhibiting new theatre. Lynne’s script, while at times just a bit dry, is lovely, real, and terribly horrifying. It’s not horror story, per say, but look at the deeper meaning and get at the true root of the playwright’s intentions and you’ll be horrified to the core. Stillpointe seems to have found a nice home, and I hope they continue to produce in this space that seems so well fitted to their style. BRAVO, STI. I’m sold (yet again!).
Running at Stillpointe Theatre until February 21st.
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