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A Pensive Performance – VUT’s Senior Directing Showcase

Posted by on Thursday, April 13, 2017 in 1010 blog posts.

On April 6th, Neely Auditorium underwent three incredible transformations. Over the course of an hour and a half, the space was completely changed from a barren wasteland, into the hallway of an apartment, and then finally into an unused floor of an office building. Phillip Franck’s set design for the three plays was exquisite and the use of space and lighting by each of the play’s student lighting designers contributed significantly to the mood of each of the plays. But what truly blew me away was how directors Benjamin Kitchens and Hannah Lazarz were able to use the scripts at their disposal as well as their phenomenal casts to get their audience thinking about everything–from how relationships form to the end of the world itself, and everything in between.

33511551010_f74d5c4aab_oThe first piece, This Quintessence of Dust by Cory Hinkle, was about a woman who went to get coffee with her ex-boyfriend. And then the world ended. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland Jane–played by Riley Pettit–had to live with the choices she had made that got her into the situation she was in. The lighting design by Robyn Hendrix bathed the stage in red and created the dismal glow of a world that once was much more than it is now. But though the former lovers now exist in a land of cannibals and bandits, their struggles are still the same. They are still dealing with their own little dramas, figuring out how to live with someone that they used to love while trying not to go insane. The script and program did allude to the space being that of a cramped apartment, however, and that did not quite come across very well. The amount of negative space in the “room,” both created by the minimalist set deisgn and the broad, dim light, made it feel much larger than it was, not cramped and awkward. The actors did relate to the space very well however, and create the feel of a small space within their own actions with the space and with each other–always seeming closer together than they really wanted to be.

33053015314_7cd90efca1_oThe Ballad of 423 and 424 came next and showed director Kitchens’ soft side. The story of the strange neighbor and the cute girl next door was presented in a beautiful and touching way and by its end warmed the hearts of the entire audience. The set was by its very nature simple and very well done, and Kat Ko’s lighting design perfectly captured the mood of the show. Very few changes were necessary in the lighting, but there was just the perfect mix of brightness and warmth. And why this play now? This play got the audience thinking. Who do we associate ourselves with, and what would happen if we bothered to look around us once in a while? A chance encounter in the hallway brought Ellen and Roderick together for the first time and piqued Ellen’s curiosity. But it was her impetus to pursue a relationship with him that gave the play life. Ellen’s olive branches glanced off Roderick’s thick skull in the most adorable way possible, and I was left smiling the entire time as I watched Ellen keep up her kindness until Roderick understood what she wanted. To be his neighbor, his friend. Something we should all want.

33855411476_c427c35f87_o The evening closed with Writer-in-Residence Steve Moulds’ The Wedding Guest, a thought-provoking piece that made the audience ask for more questions than it answered. Phillip Franck’s set design for this piece was again absolutely incredible–and may have been aided also by ready access to the playwright. The space felt so incredibly real and the actors occupied it in the most perfect way. I felt like I was watching something truly exciting; a group of friends sneaking into and unused floor of an office building to have a party to celebrate and equally exciting and peculiar marriage. But once cousin Addison showed up, things got weirder by the second.

Babe–played by William Sox–says something about not being able to hear Addison when he “speaks” (all he does is sigh, but all the characters that have interacted with him before have no trouble understanding what he is saying. His bodyguard, “Sunglasses,” then talks with Babe about German literature and the concept of a doppelgänger, “a wraith or apparition of a living person.”[1] On my way out of the theatre I heard many a mention of Addison being a representation of something–money, greed, you name it. But I heard very few people actually talking about what he was supposed to have actually been, not just what he represented. If Addison is a traditional doppelgänger, as the script suggests, then he is more than just a ghost. In the very literature that Sunglasses alludes to, not only are doppelgängers ghosts of the living, they are bringers of death. Meeting your doppelgänger is was a sure sign that you were about to come to your untimely end. Your soul had already begun to walk to earth in search of its final resting place. If Babe’s suspicion is true that Addison is his doppelgänger, then he doesn’t know what is coming to him. And he did indeed adopt a strange obsession with killing Addison, attempting to do so with a meat cleaver. But what if Addison isn’t a doppelgänger? What if he’s something more sinister entirely? A puppet. His movements were very puppet-like and the script, which I managed to get my hands on, mentions his movement being so. Perhaps his bodyguard is really the one responsible for Addison’s charm, despite his initial physical paucity. But what does this mean about why Addison can’t be heard? How does he appear to communicate with those around him? And when he finally spits coins into a hat for Babe before walking out the door, why couldn’t his family hear him then? I think Addison spoke through and about desires. When he couldn’t be heard, what he was saying wasn’t what that person wanted to hear. And Babe couldn’t hear anything at first because Addison didn’t know what he wanted. There are any number of other possibilities for interpretation, but the audience was left with wondering, who was real? Who was really the double? If there’s any chance that it wasn’t Addison, what does that mean about who we are? The existentialism seeped out of Neely as the audience emptied out into the darkness, wondering what specter might visit them tonight.


5 Comments on “A Pensive Performance – VUT’s Senior Directing Showcase”

VUT’s Senior Showcase transpired as if it were a trio of dreams, sequentially occurring with the viewer having no way of knowing how they got there and not really caring at all. The most convincing “dreamlike” element is largely owed to Lighting Designer Kat Ko, who contributed to the surrealness of the stage with foggy lighting. The first of the plays, This Quintessence of Dust, seemed like a nightmare, finding yourself trapped in a room with a conceited ex-boyfriend while riding out the end of the world together. However, a surprising rallying cry did emerge from this situation, emblematic of any dire situation: it could be worse. Riley Pettit’s Jane still finds herself despite all odds rationalizing away her current circumstances. She tells herself she didn’t really like clicking a button on a screen anyway; she didn’t really like people anyway. This backward optimism did her well when she was forced to kill her other ex-boyfriend in a weird twist of fate, illustrating the eerie reconciliations that occur under life or death situations. Almost immediately, the audience transported to a new scene; this time, it was the hallway of an apartment building. In an interesting parallel and in almost opposite circumstances, the short skit embodied the same theme of “making it work” that an extreme, end-of-the-world situation might entail. Fellow neighbor Ellen, played by Emma Noyes, illustrated this attitude. She found herself living next to an unconventional man; she sought to apply this mentality to make the most of whatever relationship she could develop because they were in a sense “stuck with each other.” In the final performance called The Wedding Guest, writer Steve Moulds drove home the survivor mentality; in this case, he delivered the message that while money may interest friends or family, it is essentially worthless in real world applications. It exists solely as an object without any true value when disassociated from its commercial worth, as it could be in a survival situation. This is represented in Addison Engel’s enormous wealth yet inability to speak, played by Scottie Szewczyk. All three performances were indeed weird like any dream, but it was a “good weird,” in that it provoked thought beyond following a simple storyline.

Catherine Kvam on April 18th, 2017 at 10:31 am

Your assessment that “Ellen’s olive branches glanced off Roderick’s thick skull” in The Ballad of 423 and 424 ignores Roderick’s journey to accept Ellen. Roderick wants to make friends with Ellen, as well. His problem is that he does not know how to and is afraid of interacting with her. The only method of making friends in his arsenal is to pet someone else like a dog. He simply does not know how to do it. In addition, Roderick is extremely anxious around Ellen. For much of the play, he can barely summon the courage to make eye contact with her, much less hold a sustained conversation. Despite his lack of social grace, he still tries to initiate an interaction with Ellen on three occasions. However, his anxiety foils his first two attempts, preventing him from even knocking on her door.
At the end of the play, Roderick overcomes his anxiety and knocks on Ellen’s door, extending an olive branch of his own towards Ellen. Therefore, in The Ballad of 423 and 424, we see a story of two very different people overcoming intense challenges to forge a new friendship. For Ellen, this challenge is to find a way to break through the mysterious shield of a socially-awkward recluse. For Roderick, the challenge is to conquer his crippling anxieties.
For audiences, this play presents an optimistic look at the possibility of unlikely friendships. Our society can feel rigidly divided along the lines of politics, race, class, social groups, etc. Likewise, Ellen and Roderick appear to be markedly different people: one is an outgoing nurse, who is willing to cook dinner for her neighbor, the other a reclusive writer who barks to scare away visitors. Yet, they become friends by the end of the play in spite of the obstacles between them. The Ballad of 423 and 424 suggests that unlikely friendships can happen, olive branches can dissolve divisions. But only if both parties are willing to make the effort.

Scott Szewczyk on April 19th, 2017 at 1:26 am

Alike Stephen Robinson, I thought that the lighting in Vanderbilt University Theatre’s (VUT) Senior Showcase helped to successfully portray each play’s setting. For example, in The Wedding Guest by Steve Moulds, lighting designer Kat Ko opted for cool colors, like blue and green, and a foggy effect to emphasize the eerie abandoned office space. I also agree with Catherine Kvam’s comparison of VUT’s Senior Showcase to a dream. All three plays in the showcase involved very rare and sometimes inhuman characters and scenarios that would likely never happen in real life, yet they still inflicted the human instinct to survive in the characters, and left the audience with that dreamlike feeling of could this really happen or is this all hypothetical? However, going beyond Catherine’s argument, VUT’s Senior Showcase is especially dreamlike and relatable to college students and specifically, college seniors. For example, The Quintessence of Dust by Cory Hinkle is very relatable to young college students who love the current trend of apocalypse movies and TV shows. This play goes even further to target the obsession of young college students with social media, referencing the need to constantly be connected and liking others’ posts, and providing an alternative world where social media no longer exists. While The Ballad of 423 and 424 by Nicholas Pappas does cause us to wonder what might happen if we paid attention to our surroundings, this play is also relevant to college seniors who are looking for new apartments and jobs, and imagining their new lives. Ellen (played by Emma Noyes) portrayed the image of what seniors are soon to become—bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, living in a new apartment, working 9-5, and eagerly trying to make new friends, such as Roderick (played by Scottie Szewczyk). The Wedding Guest is also relevant to college seniors as many seniors are thinking about what they want to do and pondering the following questions. Do I want to make money or do something really impactful? Does money influence happiness? The Wedding Guest shows how wealth is attractive but it also comes with consequences. It also shows how characters with little money, such as Babe (played by William Sox), were much happier and healthier than characters with a lot of money, such as Addison (played by Scottie Szewczyk). Babe began to worry that he needed to make more money to suit his new family, but then Addison, Babe’s doppelganger, appeared showing that money would consume Babe and kill him, and that it is not worth it to sacrifice happiness for money. Addison even spat coins into his hat at the end of the play, showing that money consumed him. All and all, these were exceptional plays led by and relevant for college students.

Delilah Bennett on April 20th, 2017 at 4:45 pm

I agree with Scottie’s suggestion that the connection between Ellen and Roderick was a two-way street that required a little give from both parties involved. Beyond not knowing how to make friends, I think the anxiety, like Scottie mentioned, is what stood out most to me, and what I feel is most relevant to the Vanderbilt audience. While Roderick’s actions may seem over the top and unusual, I also found it very easy to see myself in how he navigated a new friendship. As we first arrive to Vanderbilt, there is so much pressure to make new friends and find your place on this campus. While sometimes that felt very easy to do, I also can recall moments where I employed Roderick-like “barking techniques” to avoid stepping out of my comfort zone or not being able to muster up the confidence to “knock” on a friend’s door. While it’s easy to separate Roderick’s actions from what we consider normal, I think if we really take a moment of introspection, we can see that his actions may not be that far off. I believe the The Ballad of 423 and 424 showed us that we aren’t alone in this ever pervasive, yet not easy to admit, gloom of social anxiety. I do acknowledge, it’s possible that I am alone in these sentiments or only am speaking to a certain group of Vandy students, however, if not Roderick, other students may feel a closer connection with Ellen, who also teaches us a valuable lesson. Through navigating life as Roderick’s neighbor, Ellen was required to find empathy through their interactions. Despite the peculiar interactions they had at the start of the ballad, Ellen did not shy away from the unfamiliar and possibly even the uncomfortable. She was able to readjust her approach towards friendship by acknowledging Roderick’s discomforts; rather than ostracizing him, she took the burden upon herself to find a middle ground. This also speaks true to my Vanderbilt experience, coming from New York, I have been faced with many encounters that seem out of touch when compared to my NY ways. Ellen is a great reminder that we should step out of our own customs and ways when making new friends.

Arianna Francis on April 21st, 2017 at 9:37 am

Theatre has a way of using the stage to break down barriers and normalize the accepting of differences. While the audience knows that these differences from person to person are scripted, still we can imagine people in our own lives that we can transfer these feelings to. As mentioned previously with Ellen and Roderick. We are forced to find empathy when faced with real people voice the issues they deal with. We see that social anxiety is not just that “someone is weird” but that they are dealing with a real issue that all of us could do a better job of making people with social anxiety feel more comfortable.

Donovan Sheffield on April 26th, 2017 at 5:06 pm

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