Next to Normal

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

May 1, 2012

"Next to Normal" is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

“Next to Normal” is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Free Play Theater Cooperative’s rock musical Next to Normal, which ran this past weekend in Schwartz Hall, examines the life of a suburban family fighting against matriarch Diana’s (Abigail Clarke ’12) chronic mental illness.

Diana is bipolar (though at one point she explains, “Bipolar doesn’t quite cover it.”) and experiences bursts of manic energy. However, she tends to feel anxious and depressed most of the time. Mental health is not often the subject matter of musical theater, a genre known for its incessant good cheer. But Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, uses the form to its advantage, allowing the characters to express in lyrics what they cannot say to one another directly.

The majority of Next to Normal is conducted in song, rather than through dialogue. Additionally, the characters often sing complex vocal arrangements consisting of different lyrics, which combine to make one complex sound. Director David Benger ’14 dexterously staged number after number—37 in all—often without pause between the songs. Next to Normal takes on social issues, lambasting the pharmaceutical industry and the malaise of suburban America. As such, the writing could have veered off into preaching, but the show is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Clarke (who was also the production’s vocal director) played the complex role of Diana with simplicity and elegance. Her desperation for a “normal life” was palpable and heartbreaking. It was Jared Greenberg ’12 as Diana’s son Gabe, however, who truly stole the show. While I won’t reveal the play’s central revelation, of which Gabe is the focus, I will say that Greenberg was perfectly suited to the part.

Gabe may speak a few lines of dialogue, but I don’t recall them. Rather, the character sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him. Additionally, Greenberg was rarely still on stage, instead leaping, twisting and bopping to every song—his movements nearly balletic in form.

I found Gabe to be, if not Next to Normal’s villain, then at least the embodiment of the family’s torment. He was often crouched, gargoyle-like and ready to pounce, on the stage’s second level. In “I’m Alive,” the show’s most electric number, he suddenly springs down into the main level, proving that he is, indeed, bursting with life.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Dan (Justy Kosek ’14), Diana’s endlessly patient husband, is the crumbling rock in the sea of swirling, overwhelming emotions that drenches the show. While Kosek could not quite match the other performers in terms of vocal ability, his portrayal of a lost soul clinging to a promise made 20 years ago was wonderfully depressed. Mental illness, like all diseases, affects not only the sufferers but their families as well. In the song “I’ve Been,” Dan tries to explain to his ailing wife why he’s remained with her all these years. He utters the crushing line, “Mine is just a slower suicide,” with agonizing acceptance that defines his adult life, and the audience’s hearts break.

Diana’s pharmacologists, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden (both played by Dotan Horowitz ’12) are similarly stumped, though of course they are not as invested as Diana’s family in the outcome of her treatment. The Doctors serve primarily as Kitt and Yorkey’s mouthpieces to address the everyday evils of over-drugging patients and electroshock therapy. Though the roles are laced with over-the-top antics, I found it problematic that Dr. Madden places Diana’s cure in her own hands. He implores her to, “Make up your mind to be well.” Kitt and Yorkey are right: Vicodin and lithium may not be the answer, but victim blaming isn’t either.

Dan and Diana’s other child, Natalie (Sarah Hines ’15) plays off her father’s need to believe with feelings of fury, abandonment and self-centered loneliness. Natalie puts up a sarcastic, over-achieving front in order to cope with the ground zero that is her home life. Her boyfriend Henry (Nick Maletta ’13), a quiet stoner who sees past Natalie’s hard shell, is Next to Normal’s only fully likeable character. Paradoxically, he’s also the least fleshed out. The most we hear about his back-story is a throwaway line about how his mother is “in denial” about his drug use. Maletta possesses a strong, clear voice, necessary for Henry’s falsetto solos. I only wish that he and Hines had more chemistry on stage. Hines plays Natalie well, but so willfully that it didn’t appear she really needed a boyfriend to get through, even as she teeters perilously close to the brink herself.

Next to Normal is a powerful, gut-wrenching look at living with the invisible, uncontrollable monster named depression. Kitt and Yorkey won several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their play. It may almost be too good—after seeing Saturday’s performance, I had difficulty concentrating on anything else. The haunting lyrics followed me out of Schwartz Hall and hung over me like a personal raincloud for the rest of the day.

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In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

April 24, 2012

Scientists are not entirely sure of the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm. It may be a physical fluke, created because all fetuses start with the same building blocks, regardless of gender, and therefore men and women end up with some of the same bodily abilities. Or, perhaps, female orgasms serve an evolutionary function: some scholars argue that female orgasms help keep sperm inside the woman and even propel it upwards towards the ovaries. Sexy.

The characters in Brandeis Players’ In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play, which ran Thursday through Sunday in the Carl J. Shapiro Theater, don’t quite think in terms of evolutionary purpose, however. The play takes place shortly after the Civil War in the home of a doctor who specializes in curing “hysteria”—a uniquely female catch-all condition used to explain symptoms as diverse as fainting spells, weakness, sensitivity to light and insomnia. The cure? Pelvic massage. Due to the recent innovation of electrical wiring in private homes, doctors can now masturbate their female patients into good health.

Of course, the character Dr. Givings (Aaron Fischer ’15) sees nothing sexual in this therapy. He chats quite amiably with his patients as he manipulates “the instrument” under a sheet, asking them to describe their experience and practically patting them on the head afterwards, rewarding them for a job well done. At first, Dr. Givings’ wife, Catherine (Leila Stricker ’13) is blissfully unaware of the mechanics of her husband’s practice, noting only how his patients seem to rapidly improve after several daily sessions.

Catherine’s growing sense of detachment from her husband is the undercurrent running throughout In the Next Room. She was once proud to refer to Dr. Givings as an aloof “scientist,” grinning as she pronounced the word to Sabrina—a patient—and her husband Mr. Daldry (Nicole Carlson ’14 and Ben Gold ’13, respectively). As the play progresses, however, the audience comes to know Catherine’s feelings of loneliness and uselessness, which are spurred by her inability to nurse her newborn baby.

Stricker was a wonder as Catherine. She deftly juggled her character’s swift changes in mood, skillfully morphing from the flighty chatterbox of the first act to an introspective, demanding woman in the second. For a less-skilled actress, the role could have been trite or simply comedic. Stricker, however, demonstrated a young woman’s confusion and dawning realization that life is not all she hoped it’d be with touching emotion.

As Sabrina, Catherine’s accomplice in uncovering the mysteries of hysterical paroxysm—a.k.a. orgasm—Carlson was another delight. Upon her first entrance into the Givings’ home, Sabrina is covered in layers of dramatic dress, thick velvet draping her tiny frame and a large hat and veil perched upon her head like the top of an acorn. Executive costume designer Shana Burstyn ’12 and costume designer Grace Fosler ’14 did a magnificent job with the period costumes, particularly as dressing and undressing are such important tropes in the play.

As In the Next Room progresses, Sabrina’s hysteria dissipates along with her cloak and concealing veil, revealing an easy giggle and willingness to participate in Catherine’s schemes.

Using Sabrina’s hatpin, the women break into Dr. Giving’s operating theater, a chamber off the Givings’ living room. Catherine coaxes her friend into operating the vibrator on her. Thus, a female bond is born by way of orgasm.

The dissonance between what modern audiences know to be naughty and the utter seriousness with which the characters conduct their “therapy” gives In the Next Room its comedic edge. However, this is a joke that, at times, grows stale. Watching Dr. Givings or his efficient nurse Annie (Chastity DeLorme ’14) bring unsuspecting women to orgasm is funny the first time. Watching it again and again becomes overkill, particularly as the play runs a lengthy two and a half hours.

I wondered how the men in the audience viewed these scenes (and the play in general). Men invariably have a different attitude toward orgasm, a pleasure most can achieve even before puberty without the use of forbidden toys or a Barry White CD.

In the Next Room, by playwright Sarah Ruhl, could only have been written by a woman. And a deft, affecting performance such as the one I saw on Saturday night could only have been directed by a woman—in this case, Tess Suchoff ’13. Though In the Next Room takes place in the 1880s, when the vibrator was first invented, women are often still discouraged from taking control over their own bodies and pleasure today.

The play comes to a close in a tender, dramatic scene between Catherine and Dr. Givings. Inspired by her wet nurse Elizabeth (Sneha Walia ’15) and a brief infatuation with a rare male patient (Julian Seltzer ’15), Catherine becomes determined to reconnect, sexually and emotionally, with her husband. Echoing an earlier point in their relationship in which Catherine recalls writing her name in the snow as a gift to her husband, the pair wander out to their garden on a snowy winter night. Catherine gently commands Dr. Givings to undress, discovering her husband visually for the first time. They make love in the snow, and Catherine experiences her first orgasm from her husband.

The scene was beautifully arranged. Executive lighting designer Carolyn Daitch ’14 and lighting designers Jessica Podhorcer ’15 and Ian Carroll ’15 bathed the stage in small flickering lights. Catherine and Dr. Givings stand nearly bare before lying on the ground. I’ve seen nudity and simulated sex in theater before. But, perhaps because the play was not a glossy professional theater production, or because Ruhl’s dialogue turned so raw and needing, I was more emotionally stirred by this scene than I have been by similar spectacles. In the Next Room’s conclusion shined a light on the play’s true theme beyond its sexual highjinks: forming true connections.

Asian Pacific Heritage Month celebration

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 6, 2012

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A young woman stands perfectly still, arms tilted inwards, the pink fan clutched in her hand fluttering faintly.

Suddenly she jumps forward on beat with the traditional guitar plucking in the background. The fan flies open, revealing a long, rose-colored trail of fabric flowing from its curved folds. As the woman dances about the stage, striking traditional Chinese poses, the crowd responds with cheers, calling her name. This is Asian Pacific Asian Heritage Month at Brandeis.

APAHM is always a fun time on campus, full of colorful cultural events and engaging speakers. This year’s APAHM is particularly significant, as it marks the 40th anniversary of the Brandeis Asian American Student Association, which sponsors APAHM, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Intercultural Center. BAASA co-presidents Stephanie Lee ’13 and Vicky Lee ’13, event coordinator Karen Hu ’12 and treasurer Adam Chow ’12 began the opening performance by praising all 23 members of the executive board for their hard work in creating this year’s events.

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All three of Rooftop Pursuit’s members share the surname Lee.

The ceremony took place on Saturday night in Levin Ballroom. The theme, “Making Our Mark,” underscores BAASA’s emphasis this year on modern Asian accomplishments. Two musical groups that have gained popularity on YouTube, Ben Clement and Rooftop Pursuit, performed. Clement, who opened the show, is currently studying music at Biola University in California. He created a calm peaceful atmosphere with his romantic songs and acoustic guitar, accompanied by a band member playing rhythms on a wooden box. Clement, who considers himself a “hopeless romantic” told the crowd that many of his songs were written about previous relationships, eliciting awws from the audience. Though many of his original songs had a singer-songwriter, John Mayer-type sound, it was his last number, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” that was most popular with the audience. Though Clement didn’t quite have the vocal ability to make the song as strong as it could have been, the song’s message of social change was clearly appreciated.

After Clement’s performance, Ayan Sanyal ’14 came on stage to sing Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” a nod to “kids who grew up in the ’90s.” Then the newest student group under the BAASA umbrella, the Taiwanese Student Association, begins its performance with a loud, striking drum solo by Aaron Yang ’14. As the drum was rolled off stage eight female dancers took their places, standing like posed statues in traditional Taiwanese dress. One by one they moved to the front of the stage, demonstrating cultural fan, ribbon, handkerchief, sword, martial arts, umbrella and peacock dances. While each performer moved with clarity and purpose, it would have been more entertaining to see the dancers interact with one another. Instead, each demonstration ended before the next began, leaving seven dancers still as one moved.

After the formal grace of TSA’s performance, the ceremony’s mood changed abruptly as the Southeast Asian Club began their skit, “The Crystal Heart,” based on a traditional Vietnamese story. The skit, which imparts the story of a fisherman’s unrequited love for a snooty princess, was intentionally silly, and put the audience in a celebratory mood leading into a song by the Korean Student Association’s band. Seven KSA members took the stage to play a Korean pop song complete with impressive trumpet solos and heartfelt singing.

Rooftop Pursuit, the other professional group to perform, opened the ceremony’s second act with several original songs and covers, including Christina Perri’s “1000 Years.” Lead singer and keyboardist Phil Lee made a few humorous remarks about the three-man outfit of Korean-Americans, saying, “Our last names are all ‘Lee.’ … We didn’t do it on purpose.” Like Clement, many of Rooftop Pursuit’s songs were about romantic love, though guitarist Paul Lee’s wailing guitar riffs added some heat to the ballads.

Dan Ding takes a break from his MC duties to perform an original piece.

Dan Ding takes a break from his MC duties to perform an original piece.

Dan Ding ’12, the ceremony’s deep-voiced announcer took a moment away from the mic to perform an original classical song called “Piano Impromptu,” inspired by a swift change in weather Ding experienced while practicing with his high school sailing team. The audience was riveted by Ding’s obvious skill, and the reverent silence was broken only by applause as he concluded his piece.

The Brandeis Chinese Cultural Connection was next to perform, as seven members showed off their dance skills, combining hip-hop moves with traditional Chinese dances as they swayed, kicked and spun to Chinese artist Show Lo’s “Show of Love.” The dancers, outfitted in red and black and decked out in sunglasses, certainly looked the part of a professional hip hop group.

Siddhi Krishna ’12, representing the South Asian Student Association brought another serious moment to the ceremony as she played a piece of Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. Krishna plucked notes and melodies on her violin, playing an ode to Lord Ganesha, Hinduism’s remover of obstacles. Krishna struck an interesting silhouette, kneeling on the stage rather than standing of sitting in a chair, as most Western musicians would have.

The APAHM opening ceremony concluded with a group number combining several popular Asian songs into one high-energy dance number called Project BAASA: PANDAmonium. The entire BAASA e-board plus other dancers were clearly having fun with the performance, which, according to the program, “shows how Asians got more than smarts. They also got SWAG.” After watching this year’s opening performance, I’d have to say I agree.

APAHM continues throughout March, including the SKINS Fashion Show on March 16 and theTemptasian 40th Anniversary Party on March 23.

Student Director: Michelle Kuchinsky

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 6, 2012

Michelle Kuchinsky ’12 is the director of Brandeis Ensemble Theater’s latest production, Fuddy Meers. The play, which debuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1999, follows protagonist Claire, a woman with amnesia who wakes up each day as a blank slate, à la “50 First Dates.” Unlike the Adam Sandler comedy, however, Claire’s condition makes her an easy target. The play will be staged Thursday, March 15 through Sunday, March 18 in the Carl J. Shapiro Theater.

JustArts: How did you hear about this play, and why did you decide to propose it to Brandeis Ensemble Theater?

Michelle Kuchinsky: I was looking for a show that had a little bit more intrigue than just your straightforward linear plot. I was in “Suzuki” last semester, and I asked one of the TAs for the class (he used to be an MFA grad student, but I think now he’s assistant teaching for theater in the area) and he recommended the author [David Lindsay-Abaire], and I don’t know, the play just really called out to me.

Obviously it’s not the most well-known play, and the title is kind of obscure, so I think it’s hard for people to conceptualize what they’re about to watch or what they might spend $3 to go see, but I think that the play has a lot of intrigue and mystery [and] in the end has a lot of depth and moving moments to it.

JA: Have you ever seen Fuddy Meers performed before?

MK: Nope, never. This is my first time.

JA: So where are you right now in the rehearsal process?

MK: This is basically our last week of rehearsing. This week the actors cannot commit to any other clubs aside from us. Next week we start building the set, and that’s pretty much what we do all week except for maybe one of two dress rehearsals, if we’re lucky.

JA: What are, in your opinion, the main themes of this play?

MK: On the surface it’s about a woman who’s trying to uncover the truth of her past, but a lot of the characters are looking for ways to change and to search for forgiveness. It sort of blurs the lines between what it means for someone else to forgive you and for you to forgive yourself. [It’s about] just trying to uncover what those differences are and what really is the essence of forgiving yourself and moving on.

JA: There’s a lot of physical action in the play, as well as several twists and unforeseen revelations about who the characters really are. What was that like to direct and choreograph?

MK: There are various moments when you find out something totally new. It was definitely cool for me, at the first read-through when all the actors thought that everything was one way at the beginning, and they themselves [were uncovering] each piece of the puzzle as they were reading. That was really cool to see them all gasp and [say], “Oh my God, I can’t believe that.”

But we always have to remind ourselves at every stage, what does the audience know now versus what they knew before. And it also follows the main character, so the audience knows exactly as much as the lead character knows. It’s a very clear reminder of where the audience is in understanding the piece and the greater mystery.

JA: Have you directed previously at Brandeis?

MK: Yeah. Last fall I directed White Liars/Black Comedy, and then I also did Quickies once.

JA: What other theater experience do you have? Have you acted before?

MK: My freshman year I was in The House of Blue Leaves, and I’ve acted in Quickies a couple of times after that. I did a couple of 24-Hour Musicals, and I also teched a couple of shows. I did the board operating, the light and sound [operation] and run crew and behind the scenes things.

JA: This cast only has seven characters. What was that like working with such a small group of people?

MK: Well, I guess it was the same for White Liars/Black Comedy. That was the same, one half of the performance also had seven characters [White Liars/Black Comedy is two plays combined into one performance]. So for me it was pretty much the same. Ironically enough, I could never get them all in the same room, because we just happened to pick very over-committed people—well, I think everyone at Brandeis is over-committed.

Yesterday was probably the first rehearsal that the whole cast was at for more than five minutes, and this is our last week of rehearsal. So it would be nice to say, “Oh, a small cast, they were all there and got to know each other really well,” but unfortunately they always kept missing each other.

Jackie Theoharis

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Jan. 24, 2012

Theoharis (bottom, center) in the Woodland Theater Company’s “Cabaret.”

College is a time to explore interests, pick a major and prepare for a career. For most of us, the subject we thought we would choose to study at the beginning of our college career is not the one we end up picking in the end. For Jackie Theoharis ’14, however, theater was a passion that she never thought twice about.

“I love sharing things with the audience. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to perform, to bring such enjoyment to all these different people,” said Theoharis in an interview with justArts. She has been performing all her life, and although she is only a sophomore, Theoharis is already branching out into professional theater companies in addition to performing on the Brandeis stage.

In a few days, Theoharis will be appearing in the Woodland Theater Company’s production of Cabaret. The musical takes place during the early days of Nazi Germany and centers around the Kit Kat Klub, a sleazy Berlin nightclub, and its performers and patrons. Theoharis plays Fräulein Kost, a prostitute who lives in a boarding house along with the Klub’s performers.

“She is … [an] interesting one,” said Theoharis of her character. “She’s supposed to be a lot older, so I was surprised and a little nervous when I was cast, because normally she’s played by a 30- or 35-year-old woman, but the director [Doug Hodge] had a different take on it. She’s a prostitute, and she loves sailors. She’s so funny; … there are so many scenes where you see me coming out of a man’s room with three sailors at a time, it’s ridiculous.” Kost is a German character and has some ties to the Nazi party, though this connection is rather understated in the play. Theoharis says that knowing some of her character’s subtler motivations made Kost more interesting, both to her and, she thinks, to the play’s audience.

Acting professionally and going to school full-time is not an easy task. “It’s busy,” says Theoharis. “It’s been crazy. Specifically for Cabaret, we’ve been rehearsing every day, so it’s a lot. I have classes all day and then rehearsal at night. I’ve been exhausted from dancing and everything. But it’s all definitely worth it, I think. You just get such a great experience.”

Theoharis has been involved in professional theater before. This summer, she performed with ReagalPlayers, a company located in Waltham, and she appeared in Turtle Lane Playhouse’s The Drowsy Chaperone. And this past fall, Theoharis sang and acted her way to a Best Supporting Actress Nomination for F.U.D.G.E. Theater Company’s Spring Awakening.The nomination comes from MyTheatre, a subset of My Entertainment WORLD, a website that covers arts performances and programs in Toronto, New York, Boston and occasionally other cities. In Awakening Theoharis played Ilse, a sexually abused student who runs away from home in late 19th-century Germany. My Theatre named 40 nominees in four divisions—National, Regional, Student and Other. Theoharis was nominated in the Regional category on Jan. 12.

Theoharis plays a Nazi prostitute in the production.

Theoharis has also performed at Brandeis. Her most recent role was Hope Cladwell inTympanium Euphorium’s Urinetown: the Musical. Fräulein Kost is quite a departure from the overly cheerful Cladwell, but Theoharis is prepared to encounter all types of roles in her theater experience. “Obviously [acting is] something that I’m so passionate about and something that I’ve been doing forever,” said Theoharis. “I definitely want to at least try to make it a career, but I know that it’s very difficult. In the theater business, … it’s all very emotionally intense, if you live your life auditioning and constantly getting rejected. It’s basically a career you have to go into knowing that you’re going to be rejected. But really it’s something that I would at least want to try to do.”

Theoharis has already proven herself to be a competent and committed performer, both at Brandeis and in the Boston theater scene. It will be exciting to see what she ends up doing in the future. Maybe someday we’ll even see her name in lights.

Cabaret is playing at the Lowell Mason Auditorium on 88 R South, Medfield, Mass. Jan. 27 and 28 at 8p.m. and Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30.

Urinetown

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Dec. 13, 2011

I saw Tympanium Euphonium’s Urinetown: the Musical over 24 hours ago, and yet I still can’t get that fateful chorus, “Urinetown/This is Urinetown/You’re in Urinetown,” out of my head. The eponymous song appears near the beginning of the play and serves as a chance for the characters to air their grievances: They live in a town where, due to a 20-year drought, water has become “worth its weight in gold.” Thus, everyone must pay to do their business at one of the town’s Public Amenities. And if you don’t have the cash, you just have to hold it. If the police catch someone peeing for free, they cart them off to Urinetown, a place no one seems to know much about but which is certainly worse than where they live now.

Urinetown is a sarcastic send-up of capitalism, big business and musicals themselves. The play opens with Officer Lockstock (Justy Kosek ’14), a corrupt police officer who enforces the pay-to-pee rules, welcoming the audience and Little Sally (Aliza Sotsky ’15) to Urinetown. “Not the place, of course. The musical. Urinetown ‘the place’ is … well, it’s a place you’ll hear people referring to a lot through the show. … It’s kind of a mythical place, you understand. A bad place. A place you won’t see until Act Two. And then? Well, let’s just say it’s filled with symbolism and things like that.” This open breaking of the fourth wall and the characters’ acknowledgment that they are simultaneously living their lives and acting in a musical immediately sets Urinetown apart from the traditional Broadway show. Writer Greg Kotis and lyricist Mark Hollmann use their characters to poke fun at traditional theater from within a musical. Meta.

As the plot progresses, the audience learns that the Urine Good Company, a monopolistic mega-corporation with ties to the government that owns the Public Amenities and controls the water supply, is about to raise its prices. Bobby Strong (Jason Dick ’14), an assistant manager at Public Amenity Number Nine, decides that enough is enough, and he opens the toilets to all, free of charge. Amenity Number Nine is used by the poorest of the poor citizens of the town, many of whom have been sent away to Urinetown for violating the law and peeing without payment, including Bobby’s father, Old Man Strong (Harry Webb ’12). Bobby leads the charge against Urine Good Company’s owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Daniel Liebman ’12), convincing his fellow citizens to fight back.

Urinetown‘s greatest strength is its manic pace. Jokes fly across the stage one right after another. The funniest stunts are often created by background characters and are not always caught by the entire audience. Physical comedy, such as Caldwell’s underling Mr. McQueen’s (Zachary Smith ’15) pulled faces and comical stances, came just as quickly. Director Johanna Wickemeyer ’12 and choreographer Danielle Zipkin ’12 were not afraid to make Urinetown absurd. One of the best physical gags of the show occurred during the song “Mr. Cladwell.” Liebman parades around the stage as a chorus of Urine Good Company workers proclaim his greatness and his daughter, Hope Cladwell (Jackie Theoharis ’14), points and sing-shouts “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” hysterically. At the song’s culmination, Liebman throws off his suit jacket, revealing a sparkly red vest underneath, and the office workers form a high-kicking chorus line.

Unfortunately, Urinetown‘s characters and songs are more enjoyable than its actual plot, which got a bit muddled in the second act. Hope Cladwell, who takes up the leadership position against her father, is not as charismatic a character as Bobby Strong, particularly when Theoharis did not have Dick as a comedic partner. The second act also features two pseudo-gospel songs that are meant to be funny simply because they are sung by the clueless Hope and Bobby but which fell flat after the initial joke. The songs, “Run, Freedom, Run” and “I See a River” also didn’t do justice to Dick’s or Theoharis’ voices, which were impressive during other numbers.

Despite these complaints, at the end of the performance, it was clear that the audience had greatly enjoyed the musical. Viewers gave many of the actors a standing ovation. Their laughs throughout the night proved that not only was Urinetown a great success but that everyone, despite how they may try to hide it, loves a good poop joke.

Student Directors: Jessie Field and Rachel Huvard interview

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Nov. 22, 2011

proof

Proof won just about every award that it was up for when it was first staged in 2001, inclulding a Pultizer Prize and a Tony. The play, by David Auburn, is a tiny production with only four characters. Yet it manages to encompass a wide range of human experience. JustArts spoke to director Jessie Field ’13 and stage manager Rachel Huvard ’14 about their experiences working on the show.

JustArts: Why did you choose to do this play, or how did that process come about?

Jessie Field: Well, I chose to do the play; I was actually in my very first theater course at Brandeis, THA2A, which no longer exists. I was assigned Proof in a group to do a short project about it, and I read it. It was one of the only plays I actually read and actually gasped at parts out loud in real life, and I just loved it. We had a scene from it, and … the whole time I was just itching to direct it. And Free Play is a great group that I’m a part of, and … it seemed like a great match.

JA: What are the themes of Proof, and how do those get established in the play?

JF: There are a lot of themes in the play. The one I focus on a lot is sort of this philosophical uncertainty, because the characters in the play are dealing with mental illness or questioning their own sanity or the sanity of the people around them. The play is called Proof for a variety of reasons, but they’re constantly searching for proof of everything: of love, of friendship, that somebody has written this amazing thing, that comes to mind. … There are also gender themes, things about following your dreams, your passion. Family is a big thing too.

Rachel Huvard: I would agree with that, like obligations to family.

JA: So, the cast only has four people. What is it like working with such a small group?

JF: Wonderful, confusing, the best.

RH: Not only are they a small group, but they’re also incredibly talented and amazing people to work with who have great ideas and have contributed so much throughout the process that it’s just a pleasure to work with them.

JF: Seriously, it’s astounding how talented they are and how much they bring to the table. Working in a close environment, you can really get into things. I know people very personally, it’s great.

JA: So where is the play going to be staged?

JF: It is going to be staged in Schwartz Auditorium.

RH: It’s kind of both a bad lecture hall and a bad theater space, so it’s an interesting space to work in because of that. It doesn’t really fully serve either of its potential purposes. We wanted it to be a more intimate-feeling space because of the small cast and the nature of the show, so we ended up building our own platform to serve as the stage, and it’s on the floor right in front of the audience.

JF: It really limits the playing space.

RH: Yeah, and keeps everything really close and personal.

JF: Then we fill in the rest of the forward seats so everyone’s really close. Because it is a huge space.

JA: So are all the characters crammed onstage at all times?

JF: No, in fact they’re never onstage at the same time—all four are never onstage at the same time.

JA: Have the stage or screen adaptations of Proof influenced the way the play is going, have you seen the movie?

JF: I have seen the movie, but it didn’t help at all. They had all the people in the world [to work with], and I wouldn’t want to base it on that anyway; Rachel has seen it too. A lot of people have seen it and hated it. It’s not a good representation. I don’t like how they [portrayed] some parts of the story. I think we tried to find out our own interpretation.

RH: I didn’t see the movie until halfway through the rehearsal process. After seeing the movie I was disappointed. Proof [has] such an amazing script. … The film was compromised by how many resources they had. I like our version, not that I am biased.

JA: This being such a small group, has the cast influenced the way you thought about directing, has it been a collaborative experience?

JF: I tried to make it a collaborative experience. We are all peers, and it is difficult for one person to take a leadership role. I do have ideas I’ll stick to, but most of the time I look at what [the cast is] going to do and try and make it work.

RH: Because we have such a small cast we have been able to devote a nice amount of time to the discussion and what we think of them

JA: Is this your first time managing/directing?

RH: I have stage managed before. I stage managed at my high school, and I was an assistant stage manager for Jessie during Margaret: a Tiger’s Heart.

JF: This was the second show I have directed at Brandeis.