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.

Brandeis Film Festival

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 27, 2012

You walk into a darkened theater populated by an audience grouped in twos and threes. On the screen, images twist about, a combination of avant-garde film techniques and accidentally unfocused camerawork. You’re at Indie Louies’ third annual film festival, hosted by the Brandeis Film Collective. Let the experience begin.

Indie Louies is Brandeis’ answer to Cannes. You might not see celebrities pulling up in yachts outside of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, but within its doors there was definitely talent—and entertainment—to be found. Students from throughout the country can submit their short films to the festival, all of which are accepted. Viewers are given a ballot to vote for their favorites, which are then recognized at the Awards Ceremony in the Shapiro Campus Center Multipurpose Room. Asia Wok catered, which I like to think is the Waltham equivalent of the hundred-dollar swag bags that celebs get at big awards shows.

The two-day festival started in Cholmondeley’s on Friday night with a screening of BFC’s 48-hour films (a.k.a. films that were made in a 48-hour period earlier this year). Next up, student comedians Emma Avruch ’13 and Diego Medrano ’13 took the stage, performing short individual sets. Cinncinnati-based indie-rock band Foxy Shazam was set to perform after them, but due to a last minute cancellation, several student groups took the stage in their place, including the newly formed band Swanson.

The festivities began Friday night, but Saturday was the main event. From 1 to 5 p.m., 27 films played in the Mandel Center Auditorium. The audience was composed of clumps of friends and film enthusiasts. Host and projector operator Tom Phan ’14 took advantage of the casual crowd to crack a few jokes about the screening’s poor visual quality. It was unclear if the problem lay in the computer, the screen or the projector, but all of the black shading in the films appeared to crackle or glitter with white highlights.

Despite these setbacks, viewers gamely sat through hours of the low- or no-budget films. It was easy to tell which clips were favorites, such as “Don’t Tell Jenn,” a documentary produced by Rhode Island University senior Colby Blanchet. “Don’t Tell Jenn” follows Blanchet as he struggles to remain afloat after dropping out of his California State University exchange program due to lack of funds. Instead of returning home rejected, he filmed the last month of his time in California, including antics like basement sumo-wrestling tournaments and couch surfing around the greater Los Angeles area. Blanchet was able to spend an entire month without revealing to his mom—the “Jenn” of the film’s title—that he was not actually enrolled in school. Students were drawn to the film’s sarcastic humor, as well as to the variety of comedy Blanchet employed, including several songs. The video ended up taking home both Best Documentary/Autobiographical Film and Best Comedy.

Students gather to support amateur video festival

Students gather to support amateur video festival

“Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat,” the music video shot by Myles Tyrer-Vasell ’12 in early February, was another well-liked clip. Tyrer-Vasell created his own video for “Communion Cups,” an Iron and Wine song, as the band currently doesn’t have an official video for the single.

The music video features the ups and downs of a couple’s (Joanna Nix ’12 and Suffolk University student Alec Lawless) love life. The three-minute film was shot all in one take, an impressive feat that worked well given the song’s simple elegance.

A third film that had the crowd in fits of laughter was host Phan’s own mockumentary, “Portrait of a Skater.” The film features Phan’s attempts to “go pro” as a terribly misguided skateboarder. I was impressed by David Yun’s ’14 camerawork and “behind-the-scenes” interviews and flashbacks that have come to exemplify such shows as The Office and Parks and Recreation. Phan, a member of improvcomedy troupe Bad Grammer was hilarious as an uptight skater with little talent who dreams of becoming a star.

Other winners at Indie Louies included “Lifeguard on Duty,” another mockumentary by Temple University’s Janky Liver Productions, and “Premonition,” a psychological thriller by Emerson College senior Anthony Esposito. “Lifeguard on Duty” won People’s Choice Award, Best Screenplay and Best Directing, and “Premonition” secured Best Sound Design, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Picture. Brandeis alumna Amy Thompson ’11 also took home Best Editing for her comedic short “Lint.”

While not all the films were as successful as the ones I’ve mentioned—a documentary about an elderly woman infested with maggots comes to mind—Indie Louies continues to be a fun and always-interesting look at what our friends and peers are up to behind the camera.

Slam Poetry Competition

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 13, 2012

The power of words.

The power of words.

Hoots, stomps and applause fill the air, causing the poet to smirk slightly before continuing with his piece. He fills the room with his words, emotion-drenched and powerful. His volume dips from barely above a whisper to a booming echo.

This is Brandeis Open Mic’s most recent slam, Brandeis vs. Berklee vs. Harvard. The event took place on Tuesday night in the Shapiro Student Center Multipurpose Room. Teams of four poets from each university showed off their slam writing and performance skills, competing in four rounds. It was the Brandeis team, VOCAL, that claimed the top spot, beating out Berklee by just six-tenths of a point. Though the competition was fierce, the poets were immensely appreciative of each other, cheering loudly when a verse hit home regardless of which team the speaker was on.

Before the slam began, Brandeis team member Rawda Aljawhary ’13 led a brief workshop for performers and audience members. She asked participants to imagine a moment that they wished to write about and to examine it “from every possible angle,” so that they could find a more creative way to incorporate the memory into a poem. Aljawhary said that she uses this technique herself when writing. After several minutes, many poets shared the short pieces or snippets of verse they had come up with.

As the workshop ended, more and more audience members filed into the space, until the Multipurpose Room held close to 50 people. Audience members and competitors were invited to perform at the open mic that drew in the audience before the official competition. This is when the atmosphere of the slam poetry competition really began to wash over the room.

The poems performed at the open mic, as well as those performed in the actual competition, covered a whole range of topics, from the irreverent—afternoon sexual escapades, poetry itself—to the disturbing—domestic violence and racism. No matter the subject, however, the audience always had something to say. Although I’ve watched plenty of slam poetry online or as part of a larger performance, I wasn’t prepared for the audience response.

Grunts of approval, foot stomping, cries of “aww, yeah” and “go, poet” provided a backdrop to the poem itself, connecting the audience to the performer in a way I had never experienced before. I even heard a girl shout, “That was so motherfucking good” after one poem left the crowd almost speechless. Cheers of approval quickly followed.

After the open mic, three judges were chosen from the audience. Attempts were made to find unbiased viewers, though it was difficult considering nearly all of the audience members were from Brandeis. The host of the slam and former VOCAL captain, Brandeis alumnus Jason Henry Simon-Bierenbaum ’11 explained the slam rules, which are standard for all competitions, both on the collegiate and professional levels. Judges give a score from zero to 10 based on how well the poet did, both in writing and performing their work. There are four rounds, during which one poet from each school performs, for a total of 12 performances. Each poet is given no more than three minutes for each poem. No props, costumes or music can be used, though dance, body movement and beat boxing are allowed.

As an introduction to the official competition, Brandeis poet Kat Flaherty ’15, the “sacrificial poet” of the night, performed her poem, “Breasts” about when she had thought she might have breast cancer, to give the judges an example on which to base their scores. Then the poets got down to business.

Poets Jessica Hood ’15, Malika Imhotep ’15, Emily Duggan ’15, and Usman Hameedi ’12 were the four Brandeis poets. In the first round, Hood gave a personal account of her relationship with food, considering what she termed her “inheritance”: the diabetes that plagues many members of her family. Hood’s descriptions of Southern home cooking were mouth-watering, but quickly turned sour when the audience realized that these foods were poison to a diabetic.

Imhotep had a different style than Hood, speaking faster and pronouncing her words less clearly for effect, more akin to a rap than a poem. She spoke about how black men had to change the way they acted to fit into broader society, acting tough and disrespectfully to impress their peers and to make an impression. Imhotep is a small person, standing only a few inches over five feet. Her voice, however, was loud and sure, expressing the anger she clearly felt. Imhotep performed wearing a tight beanie over her head, as though to contain the thoughts that instead exploded from her mouth.

Duggan, who opened the third round of poetry, also had a style uniquely her own. She did not employ the traditional slam techniques of spacing her words to give emphasis to certain phrases. She did not alter her tempo or volume to highlight different verses. Instead, she performed her poem about death and separation much more like a traditional poetry reading, showcasing the many stylistic variations poets use when performing their work.

These changing techniques are what makes slam poetry a great art form, according to slam poet and author of Words In Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. In an interview with the Best American Poet blog, Aptowicz commented, “Poets … always worry that something—a style, a project, a poet—will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new.”

Aptowicz’ words were proven true at the Brandeis vs. Berklee vs. Harvard event. Hameedi, the VOCAL captain and the last Brandeis performer, is known on campus for his mastery of fast-paced word-play and his politically charged pieces, and Tuesday night’s poem was no exception. Hameedi performed “To Every TSA Agent That Gets A Little Antsy When Someone Obviously Muslim Tries to Board an Airplane,” a poem in which he lambasted Transportation Security Administration agents, the American government and regular citizens for discriminating against Muslims and people presumed to be of Middle Eastern descent. Hameedi referred to himself as a “proud Pakistani-American.” The poem itself went through all 26 letters of the alphabet, making 26 alliterative verses before Hameedi wrapped it all up with righteous indignation.

As Brandeis claimed victory at the end of the evening, the audience buzzed with energy as they left the room. The cadences of slam poems echoed in my mind for the rest of the night.

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.

Brandeis Basement

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Feb. 14, 2012

brandeis memes

“Hey man, I’m sober. Let’s go to Ollie’s.”

By now, this satirical quip has become ubiquitous on campus, thanks to Paul Gale ’12, Adam Lapetina ’12, Aaron Sadowsky ’13 and Joshua Seiden ’13. The four students released their first video through the website Brandeis Basement, titled “Shit Brandeis Students Don’t Say,” last Wednesday. The video, which follows the “S­hit Some Group Says” meme format, quickly went viral. It has accumulated over 16,000 views by press time. For non-math majors, that’s five times the population of the student body.

“We were like, ‘We’re starting this website online,’ … and people could share it on social networks, and that would be the end of the day. Or we could do something that people would really want to share and would get our name out,” Gale said.

Campus Basement, Brandeis Basement’s parent site, is a platform for college students to broadcast humor relating to their individual schools. Seiden originally contacted the site to create the partnership. Now that their first video has proven to be such a success, a sequel is the first thing the guys are working on: The second “Shit Brandeis Students Don’t Say” project will be “a combination of both [new and previously shot footage], but mostly new things,” said Lapetina. Seiden added, “We made some allusions to the first video in the second video.”

Sadowsky said, “We established some really strong characters which we’re going to carry over to the second video.” The students cracked up as Gale mentioned perhaps the most-well known joke in the video, “J. Scott Van Der Meow.” This crack refers, of course, to Assistant Dean of Academic Services and Director of Study Abroad J. Scott Van Der Meid. Van Der Meid has apparently taken the joke in stride, even posing for a picture with the four video creators. “For the next video, we should just have a cat, … a cat studying abroad,” Gale offered.

brandeis memes 2

The Brandeis Basement team is hoping to increase the number of campus celebrities in their next video, including University President Frederick Lawrence. “We’ll tone it down for him, … make it as tame as possible,” Lapetina joked. Though it’s unlikely that University policy makers will show up in the next video, “Shit Brandeis Students Don’t Say” has clearly made an impact on campus.

Many people, both students and professors, have complimented Gale, Lapetina, Sadowsky and Seidenon their work and encouraged them to create more content. “It’s been fun to have such a high response. It’s cool to see something that pretty much everybody at Brandeis liked, and that’s a unique thing,” Seiden said.

“Except for four people,” Gale interjected, referring to the four dislikes the video has gotten on YouTube.

“Yeah, well, those four people can fuck themselves,” Seiden teased in mock-anger.

All kidding aside, the video has had a real positive impact on its creators. Lapetina, who has not worked in front of the camera previously, remarked, “It’s been nice, because I’ve become a little more confident in my acting ability as a result of this. Working on [my] delivery and workshopping it, it’s been a really fun experience, and I’ve learned a lot. I think it will maybe lead into some other opportunities down the line.”

Students are already eagerly anticipating the new video, which, along with the creation of the Brandeis Memes Facebook page, has ushered in an surge of online student-created humor.

The memes page takes the popular picture-and-caption formats that have been on the internet for years—including Forever Alone, the Most Interesting Man in the World and Awkward Penguin— and alters them to apply to Brandeis life. One example is the page’s take on the Ryan Gosling “Hey Girl” meme, in which a picture of Ryan Gosling is covered by a cheesy pick-up line. The caption on the Brandeis picture reads “Hey girl, is your name Rabb Steps? Because you just took my breath away.”

The Memes page includes several GIFs from the “Shit” video.

As more and more humor goes from print to the web, and videos can go viral in a matter of hours, it will be fun to watch a group of Brandeis comedians gain a bit of cyber celebrity. Look out for the team’s second video, which will be posted after February break.