Every so often, a piece of theatre comes around that reshapes the limits of what theatre can be. That piece might place a character at the center of its story who has rarely seen the spotlight, allowing them to blink in its brightness and revel in being able to tell their tale. Or perhaps that piece might break down everything you thought you knew about the confines of the stage — the confines of life itself, even — by shaking up once-dependable forces of nature that now give way to chaos. If you’re lucky, you might even see a couple of these revolutionary plays in a single evening.
Such was the case with New Voices/New Visions Part Two, an extraordinary duo of plays presented from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 in the Studio Theatre. Featuring the original work “Conform” by alum Joseph McNaney ’17 and the classic absurdist piece “The Bald Soprano” by Eugène Ionesco, this run of shows was certainly not one to forget.
First came “Conform,” the profoundly comedic tale of Sam, a 14-year-old high school student with Tourette’s syndrome. Placed on a set consisting of only a large desk on the right, a kitchen table on the left, and a backdrop made up of five pastel-painted panels periodically lit with different primary colors, the Studio Theatre became the perfect playground for Sam’s fantasies, full of heroes, villains, and mystical queens. Not all of Sam’s life is so whimsical, however — after being restrained by his principal and instinctively punching her in the face, he becomes entrenched in a battle between his mother and the administration, one that ultimately threatens to place him in a special education school. Camille Seidel ’18, who plays Sam’s dedicated mother Liz, recalls the various ways in which the play, like Sam’s life, is balanced between two extremes.
“The play is sort of a mix between harsh reality and the worlds that Sam creates in his head to deal with that harsh reality in which he is a superhero named Dumb-Pussy-Ass-Fag-Man,” said Seidel. “It’s a funny show and it’s a comedy, but it’s definitely playing with a really serious issue which is, I think, what makes the funny parts funnier.”
There have been mixed reactions to the profanity and slurs utilized in this play — even its director, Irene Martinko ’18, was initially hesitant towards their use.
“When I first read the script, I was definitely impressed with the writing, but I was also super nervous,” Martinko said. “The show is full of harsh language and addresses some difficult conversations in a very straightforward way and I wasn’t sure if I was qualified to take on the project. I basically had to do months of research and brainstorming so that I could really understand the show, and after that, I completely fell in love with the script.”
I, too, was unsure about how these words could be used responsibly, but as I watched the show, I began to comprehend why they might have been included. The profanity is not condoned for use by an authority figure, but is tossed around in a deliberately immature fashion by the four 14-year-old male characters as if to underline their casual cruelty and pure nonchalance towards the true meaning behind their speech. We’ve all known these boys in high school, and these characters add an almost-too-real sense of groundedness to a piece that frequently blurs the line between fantasy and reality.
This is part of what makes “Conform” such an interesting and important show — while it stages typical teenage snapshots like a hallway wrestling match between friends, certain moments, sometimes in direct conversation with these silly actions, are painfully poignant. When Sam, expertly played by Sean Kenny ’20, stops time in his conversation to let the audience in on how he’s really feeling, we are allowed to share his consciousness and are made all too aware of his inner struggle. When Liz, faced with her son’s rejection of her comfort, spends an agonizing few moments silently gathering her emotions only to reach for the superhero costume that will allow her to become the strong, all-knowing Master Mater, the audience is physically weighed down by her sorrow.
“Conform is a critique of the way the American education system treats students with disabilities, a commentary on toxic masculinity, and a simple coming-of-age story about a boy with a disability,” Martinko said. “It’s scary to do a play that’s never been done before but also really interesting because you have nothing to compare it to. You get to solve problems and come with ideas to a create a show that no one’s ever seen and that actually gives you a lot of freedom.”
Though the freedom of a piece unknown allowed the team behind “Conform” to break new ground, the same went for the established work “The Bald Soprano,” which, like “Conform,” refused to obey the ordinary rules of space and time.
“’The Bald Soprano’ is a strange play to say the least. People ask me what it’s about, and honestly I’m still not really sure myself,” said Laine Flores ’20, who played the hot-tempered Mrs. Smith. “The Martins come over to the Smith’s home in the outskirts of London to have dinner. The fire captain arrives in search of conflagration, and stays to tell some stories. There’s also Mary, she’s the maid. Generally absurd dinner conversation and the gradual collapse of reality ensues.”
And collapse it did — though the set resembled what one might think of as a traditional British living room, the clock at its center turned backwards and forwards in time at its will, even lighting up red and issuing smoke at some points. Mr. and Mrs. Martin, through a series of bizarre coincidences, discover that they must be married, only to have the illusion broken by Mary, who informs the audience that the two are not who they think they are. The doorbell rings when no one is there, and the fire captain laments a lack of flames as he tells stories made up almost entirely of non-sequiturs.
Though this might sound confusing — and indeed it is — it’s also a whole lot of fun. No one in the audience could hold back a laugh, even if they might not have had any idea what they were laughing at. It is this magical sense of the unknown, according to director Brydon Geisler ’18, that makes this show worth watching.
“I don’t want to assign a meaning to this play, because I think the play questions the very need for meaning,” Geisler said. “I see it as an exaggeration of life, and that’s what gives it its charm … time as a controlling, yet subjective force, gender roles, and petty fights, words lose their meaning without context. I want the audience to feel inspired to live a little more [meaningfully].”
This message certainly applies to both plays — if we could all just live a little more meaningfully, a little more intentionally, maybe we too could start something new.