“Topside” by You-Shin Chen: Muhlenberg Weekly arts review series

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Scott Snyder | Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance

Recently, the artistic visionary of Muhlenberg theatre & dance faculty was featured in an inspirational way. You-Shin Chen, assistant professor of scenic design, had a feature in Broadway On Demand’s Short Film Festival, for her film project “Topside.”

Broadway On Demand (BoD) is a relatively new online streaming service that was created to bring works of theatre and visual art to quarantined arts-lovers, and now hosts a variety of media, from full-length pro-shot musicals to theatrical documentaries. The team at BoD announced the event as “A short film festival to celebrate the innovative ways we’ve given space to theatre in a socially distant world. We’re excited to host creators across different media who have built short films with streaming in mind.” 

“[Chen] is a prolific and innovative designer who recently won the 2020 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Scenic Design, for Ars Nova’s ‘Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie,’” stated Rebecca Lustig, assistant professor of theatre, in a statement made to the theatre and dance community on Jun. 4.[Chen] brings not only her beautiful design aesthetic but also her commitment to mentoring young performance-makers and to sustainability in performance production and her wide variety of work.”

Chen worked alongside a team of creatives to bring “Topside” to life, including writer and voice actor Scott Sheppard, director and performer Joshua William Gelb and sound designer Galvin Price.

Greeted with an ambient blend of abstract sound and nostalgic cocktail bar swing, a screen-sized box containing two men in chairs, one wearing a gas mask, and the other without, settled into frame. The inner monologue of the maskless man drove the plot forward, as his words beautifully orchestrated a grippingly desperate descent into madness. 

One of the most poignant nuances of this piece was the usage of static effects, which radiated from an old-school television set, contributed to the aesthetic of a vintage nuclear fallout scene. The scenic design was stunning in texture, and used minimalism to communicate the immense discomfort surrounding the monotony felt by the protagonist. 

Additionally, the language used throughout the piece was raw and spoken with a sense of contextual realism. Throughout the film, the protagonist went back and forth on whether or not to use violence against the other man in the room, and even sadistically estimated how far he would have to push the social barrier before the man with the gas mask would be forced to pull a weapon on him. There were also moments of calm, when the voice in the protagonist’s head would simmer down and wallow in solemn acceptance of the fate that he had been stranded in this box for over 100 days, creating a strong polarity within the man’s emotional strata.

Of course, it is rather unpleasant to imagine a quarantine in that small of a space, and for that extent of time, but one that seems more relatable than ever coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, “Topside” was a very poignant and powerful example of absurdist visual art, and Chen’s scenic visionary added immensely to the dark, complex texture of the piece’s setting and characters.

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