What constitutes “good play writing,” “good directing” and “good acting” are obviously highly subjective, and seemingly endless, discussions. But clear communication between playwrights, directors, actors, and the audience where each receiver feels they’re having a meaningful one-on-one with the sender is a fine place to start (and finish).
How does the communal setting of a theater performance become so personal? There are an infinite number of routes, but the journey is propelled by active listening. How is that done? With all the senses. To quote from Uta Hagen’s “A Challenge for the Actor”: “We listen with our entire being when we are engaged in truthful dialogue.”
Over the past two weeks – in the intimate spaces of Darkhorse Theater, Actors Bridge Studio Downstairs at the Darkhorse, and Belmont University’s Black Box Theatre – the power of sustained truthful dialogue between theater-practitioners and theatergoers has been on engaging, electric display. It’s come through The Destiny Theatre Experience’s world premiere of “23/1” by Shawn Whitsell, Actors Bridge Ensemble’s production of Adam Szymkowicz’s “Kodachrome” (2018) and Pipeline-Collective’s presentation of Keith Bunin’s “The World Over” (2002).
Whitsell – DTE’s founder and artistic director – produces, co-directs (with Candace-Omnira), and stars in the play he penned. It’s a wrenching portrait of a soul searching for redemption while fighting for sanity. Whitsell plays Darnell, a young drug dealer whose lengthy prison stretch in Texas serves as both a hellish pit of despair and a possible crucible for hope. The play’s title references the fact that much of Darnell’s time is spent in solitary confinement, meaning he’s allowed outside for just one hour a day.
His heartrending performance is a both an artistic blessing and a social lesson to behold. Whitsell’s active listening has attuned him to the world his character inhabits, and he stays focused on delivering that reality. As he wrote in a recent Instagram post, “This is not about me. It’s about those men and women on the inside and the families and communities impacted by their mistakes or injustices served, and their absence, regardless of what the circumstances are. I’ve volunteered at a prison for five years, which gives this piece added value for me. I know men just like the one I play. I wanted to honor their struggle and their humanity. This piece is my contribution to the cause.”
And what a contribution it is. “23/1” uses back-wall projections of often brutal images, music from a myriad of genres, styles and eras, and a large prison cell (contributed by Tennessee Playwrights Studio following its recent “Maidens” premiere at the Darkhorse). Robert Allen’s striking lighting design and some powerful movement choreography from Shabazz Chijioke are also notable offerings, as are the voices of Kenley Smith, Molly Breen, Michael Diallo McLendon, Alicia Haymer and Jack Chambers along with appropriate wardrobe contributed by Patrick James. But most of all, this play utilizes the writing and acting gifts of the extraordinary Mr. Whitsell.
Whitsell’s words appropriately strike like unrelenting blows. The pain in Darnell’s truth is that there’s nothing noble about his surroundings or condition; the power in that truth is the righteous spark in his soul. As he says in a pivotal scene, “…I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m being disrespectful. Because I’m not looking you in the eye. … It’s just hard for me to look at anybody who isn’t a guard or another inmate, especially people who knew me before.”
For those who will see a future production of this show – I firmly believe, to use an old phrase, that it will “have legs” – I won’t spoil anything. Just know that no easy answers or trite truisms spring from this play: “23/1” shines its unsparing light so that illumination can inspire transformation in us all.
(July 29 Update: Due to popular demand there will be encore performances of “23/1” Aug. 2-3 at 7:30 p.m. Click here to visit Eventbrite for information and tickets.)
Adam Szymkowicz’s play successfully debuted last year at Portland (Ore.) Center Stage at The Armory. Now his funny, often tender, and rhythmic conversational writing comes (for the third time – read a review of the first time here) to Nashville’s ever-in-the-moment Actors Bridge Ensemble troupe. In the vein of Sanford Meisner they root their performances in the “reality of doing,” and as usual it’s a beauteous thing to behold (the playwright himself got to at Friday’s performance).
The Photographer (Mary Claire Reynolds) lets us know up front that she has things to tell us about the people in and the small town of Colchester. At first blush this might feel like a 21st Century nod to Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s 1938 masterpiece “Our Town,” but “Kodachrome” isn’t playing copy-cat; it’s just Szymkowicz’s welcoming route to characters trying to find (or replace) connections. As we watch various human snapshots, the dances people do with one another – complete with steps of love, longing, joy and sadness – is on touching, but never treacly, display.
Reynolds plays her character with such affability that we like and trust her immediately – which works to the story’s advantage as more and more revelations reveal just how complex that character truly is. C.J. Tucker, Barry Kennedy, Jr., Nyazia Martin, Ani Pareek, Hayley Jo Pellis and Hanna Lipkind each have multiple roles, and it’s a consistent tribute to the material (and to the memory of Meisner) that each part they portray is distinct and realistic.
Paul Gatrell’s striking scenic design features storefront windows, a brick facade and containers of fresh-cut flowers where various cameras sit on shelves and picture frames adorn the walls. Richard Davis’ lighting design perfectly complements the changes in scene and mood prescribed by the playwright’s words and the actors’ clear-cut transitions. Colleen Garatoni’s costumes adroitly clothe each personality.
This is the first time that veteran Nashville actor Rachel Agee has directed a show; given the thoroughly enjoyable results of this production I strongly hope it’s just the first time. They’ve obviously heard what Szymkowicz says through his script, but in completely listening to each other the remarkable artists of Actors Bridge make this play a very vivid picture.
The World Over
Keith Bunin’s play was a 2002 smash at New York’s Playwrights Horizons starring Justin Kirk (before he was the ne’er-do-well Andy Botwin on TV’s “Weeds”). Throw pieces of William Shakespeare, Homer, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, William Goldman (thinking about the “The Princess Bride” in this instance) and others into a theatrical cocktail mixer and you get a frothy hero’s journey that often keeps you giggling while laughing at itself. The fact that director David Ian Lee has actually staged this production in a large sandbox – where better to play it? – is a clue before the show starts that a fun adventure lies ahead. (And speaking of “before the show starts,” there’s a really cool online game [click here] that Pipeline-Collective devised to publicize their production.)
It’s in the complete reception of Bunin’s scripting signals and Lee’s playful direction that Pipeline-Collective’s talented thespians create a heightened, and often hilarious, realism. (I interrupt this part of the review for an important announcement – the laugh-until-it-hurts costume that designer Allison Hearn placed on Garris Wimmer’s squawking sultan deserves a special note of praise. I’m still laughing at that mental image a week later.)
That doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games, though – at the heart of “The World Over” there’s a lifetime search by Adam (DéYonté Jenkins), who believes he’s the prince of an unseen kingdom. Jenkins poignantly plays a man beset by Job-like obstacles; his physicality in the role is impressive, as are the natural nuances of expression and gesture he brings to the part.
In addition to the wonderful performance by Jenkins there are the treats of multiple characterizations by Wimmer, Nikkita Staggs (particularly moving as Adam’s long-suffering love, Isobel), Meggan Utech, Jonah M. Jackson, Sarah Zanotti and David Torres-Fuentes. Local acting great Nan Gurley provides the eerie voice of a Gryphon you wouldn’t want to mess with (unless you’re a hero like Adam, of course).
If there’s any quibble about “The World Over,” it’s perhaps that in aging Adam well before we get to the conclusion of Act II Bunin’s story feels tired before the end is in sight. Thankfully Pipeline-Collective’s players are never tiring (though I bet they’re tuckered out from their high-energy performances); their active listening, which leads them to react in so many interesting ways to and with each other, happily draws us into the magical mirth of Bunin’s fantastical world and keeps us there until the house lights come up.
The Listening’s The Thing
In a famous passage from Act 5, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the Melancholy Dane advises that “the readiness is all.” That’s unquestionably great advice for many endeavors. If what goes into that readiness isn’t truthful, though, all the preparation in the world won’t make it acceptable to theatergoers. The truthful theatrical dialogue that comes from the active listening of creatives at The Destiny Theatre Experience, Actors Bridge Ensemble and Pipeline-Collective – between themselves and in concert with Nashville audiences – produces plays to our mutual benefit.
The Theatre Destiny Experience’s world premiere of “23/1” ended its run on Saturday; for more information on the company that started in 2007 click here to check out their Facebook page. Actors Bridge Ensemble’s run of “Kodachrome” ends today (Sunday); for more information on the company that was founded in 1995 click here to check out their website. Pipeline-Collective’s production of “The World Over” ended its run on Saturday; click here for the website of the company that began in 2016.