Alumni reconvene for new theatre department initiative

The first few weeks of the summer break here at the University of Illinois by a new initiative by the department of theatre. Entitled, “New Voices in Theatre: Revelations and Discoveries,” the pilot program seems to be apart of the the new head’s initiative to expand the scope of the department through creating and sponsoring new work, of which the Sullivan Project is one aspect. The summer initiative worked cleverly in two acts. First, it included a staging of MacArthur “genius” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size, workshopped with the author before being staged by the Definition Theatre Company. Based in Chicago, Definition is comprised of recent UIUC graduates of the BA program.

Second, Definition produced a New Short Plays Festival at UIUC that included eight one-acts culminating in another short piece by McCraney. Perhaps the only downside of being overseas for most of the month of May was missing this run of McCraney’s work-in-progress, having loved his The Brother/Sister Plays at Goodman a few years ago. I was able to make it to the New Short Plays Festival, however, which was a refreshing change from my diet of William Shakespeare and Noel Coward. The selection of pieces was coherent and compelling, circling around central themes of the American dream-fantasy, online dating, Black culture, and storytelling as a form of identity politics.

Typically consisting of no more than two performers at a time, the selections were geared toward intimate and technically precise performances elevated by exigent dialogue. The performers were mostly members of Definition while supported by a few from the MA program at Illinois. The intimacy of one-act plays can be incredibly pleasurable because of the emotional and performative risks involved, especially here in a black box theatre with no set pieces or costuming but monochromatic chairs around which to work. One-acts are a kind of litmus to the depth and nuance a performer is a) capable of and b) capable of switching between. Having become a Krannert regular over the past five years, this was made all the more pleasurable by the stand-out performances of Sarah Ruggles (The Normal HeartO BeautifulThe Tempest) and the very memorable alum Julian Parker (The African Company Presents Richard IIIMacbeth, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot).

Both Ruggles and Parker are actors marked by a kind of sprezzatura: they make a hard thing look effortless, easy. Both inhabit a vocal tenor that marks their individual styles, but are able to embody and inhabit roles fully and seamlessly. And I mean seamlessly in a literal sense, that they do not expose the seams between themselves and their parts. In the jump from part to part you except to see a bit of seam, a bit of stitching come loose. And yet, you don’t. Furthermore, both actors resist the sentimentality that impassioned plays with a title like “The Space Behind Your Heart” seems to beg. In this, a Christmas eve date between Christian Minglers looking for a second chance, Ruggles doesn’t give into the sappy potential of the conceit, but rather keeps her character on the edge of rejection so that the final wordless moment of sharing an imaginary cup of coffee carries the weight of real acceptance between strangers. So, when Ruggles and Parker share the stage in a first-date game of what-ifs in “Just Suppose,” both seem to plumb the gamut of emotions of utter possibility and utter hopelessness between which we inevitably swing on such occasions.

The new initiative, shaped as a festival invested in challenging work that continues to support UIUC students after they have left their training proper speaks to the department’s changing ideological commitments. Unfortunately, this is it for theatre at Krannert for the rest of the summer (which I can’t blame them for as I thought their might be more actors than audience members five minutes before curtain). I hope the New Short Play Festival is the first of further summer initiatives of such rigor to come.

A “Richard III” a bit tired with the weight

This weak piping time of peace.

As Krannert’s season of classics continues, I am beginning to understand what they mean with that heading. As in any student production, there was a lot of variability, but the leads Ann (Kalyn N. C. Rivers) and James (Julian Parker) held down the fort. The famous scene from both the Shakespearean source text and this appropriation–Richard wooing Lady Anne–was particularly enjoyable. Parker wields a wealth of raw talent and clearly has a bright future ahead. But at the season’s heart, rather than considering a canon, all the works so far are interested in meta-theatre–plays that consider the conditions of theatre. This is one of the two tired themes of Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III, despite the valiant attempt by a student-and-professional ensemble. The other somewhat tired theme African Company explores is that of social justice theatre.

In essence, the general critical understand of this play is that it makes the case that Shakespeare, an artist working in a developing world, makes more sense in the modern world when performed by non-white actors. And yet there is no success at the end: the company’s theatre is closed, the actors sent to jail, and the formation of the couple is deferred. For me, the question this production posed was what do we do with theatre that has a clear social justice agenda? I always struggle with Feminist, and Post-Colonial adaptations in that the social constructionism agenda feels significant but in practice, flatlines. This play just didn’t encourage alternative readings aside from the racially-inflected, nor did it suggest other avenues of complexity. A good play or film stays with me for a while, working its way into my day dreams or intermittent moments of undirected thought. This play didn’t, perhaps because it encouraged me to take away only one potential message.

“Richard III and The Ghosts” by William Blake (1806).

This play is part of a current trend in Shakespeare adaptations that asks who gets to play Shakespeare, and who is entitled to rewrite Shakespeare. Krannert’s malleable Studio Theatre was turned into a partial stage with a traditional proscenium arch overhead–two performance spaces. Perhaps I am too much a product of my own cultural make-up, but a play considering its own conditions and milieu feels disjointed for a theatre-going public that has greatly shrunk and/or changed in the last century with the advent of the cinema and television. Spectatorship has changed in ways we are still struggling to articulate and pin down.

Like David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, sometimes these kinds of plays feel as if they are written only for an audience made up of fellow actors. My lack-luster response is likely due to a lack of interest in and knowledge of theories of social constructionism, such as gender and race studies. However, intertextuality is something I am interested in–those conversations between texts. The play suggests that it is interested in ideas concerning who has the right to perform Shakespeare. But here, the Bard functions more as a textual vessel or framework than actually considered by the play. This kind of artistic narcissism doesn’t encourage creative or exploratory thought–a quality one assumes is fundamental in constructing a season interested in what it means to be part of a canon. So, while well considered in execution, sadly African Company comes up dry.