Monday, March 09, 2020

Impressive “WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID” at Seat of Pants Productions

It is appropriate that on March 8, National Women’s Day, which contends to end exploitation and increase equality for females, I saw Seat of the Pants production of Sarah Treem’s “WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID.” 

Treem writes plays that have a high percentage of female roles.  She is noted for coming up with an exciting premise for examining characters of different backgrounds and ideas of what it means to be a woman at this pivotal historical moment in American history.  She conceives plots in which womens’ perspectives are challenged. She is not afraid to use explicit detail, upsetting sexual actions, and strong dialogue to flesh out women.

As one theater reviewer stated of “WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID,” “it is a stark reminder of how rare it is to see such urgent subject matter tackled in mainstream theater.”

It’s 1972, Agnes (Derdriu Ring), a woman with a teenage daughter is running a B&B on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, off the coast of Washington state.  The facility is also a safe space for abused women who find their way to Agnes through a means of silent leads since being off the radar is a requirement for protection from the lady’s abusers.

The latest woman needing advice and protection is Mary Anne (Kelly Strand), a pretty impulsive young lady who has been beaten-up by John, her husband.  

The only guest at the B&B is Paul (Andy Knode), a mild-mannered San Franciscan music teacher, who has come to the island, to mull over his impending divorce.  He becomes infatuated with Mary Anne, and when she has to leave the safe sanctuary because she has called her husband John, thus breaking the code of secrecy that is needed to protect other women, offers to take Mary Anne with him.

Penny (Morgan Brown), Agnes’s “daughter” is an awkward brainiac who has a crush on Tommy, a football player at the island’s high school.  Prom is coming up and though she contends that she isn’t interested in attending, she silently wishes that Tommy would ask her to the dance.  With Mary Anne’s advice, she not only achieves her goal of getting a date, but runs away with the boy for a long weekend.  

Below the surface of Agnes and Penny’s relationship is a secret of the connection between the two women.

Into this complex story of women and their ideas, wants, needs, and society’s expectations for them, comes Mary Anne, a macho, avowed lesbian, in search of her friends who have founded a commune for women where, with a strict rule restricting males from the community, desire to set up a woman-centric society.

Treem nicely develops an intriguing dynamic as each woman’s perspective is presented and challenged.  

Questions arise:  Will Mary Anne succumb to her weakness for danger and slink back to her husband for further mistreatment?  Will she accept the overtures of mild-mannered Paul? If she goes off with Paul, will he be a better option? Will a relationship develop between Mary Anne and Agnes?  Will Penny forget her plans to go to Yale and let her first foray into love set her life pattern instead?  

The Seat of The Pants production is wisely directed by Craig Joseph.  He not only understands the script and how to hone his actors’ performances, but nicely blocks the movements to take advantage of Aurora Community Theatre’s quirky thrust stage which finds the audience not only surrounding the acting area on three sides, but looking down onto the performance area.  

The cast, headed by two of the area’s best and most awarded actresses, Derdriu Ring and Amy Fritsche, both Cleveland Critic Circle and best actress award winners, is outstanding.  The rest of cast rises to their level, with each fleshing out a real person.  They don’t act. They are!

In lesser hands than the astute direction and fine performances, there is a danger that the “made for television” writing style and plot development could evolve into a less than satisfying experience.  

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND AFRAID” gets a superb production, with high quality direction and acting, thus making it a perfect vehicle to “celebrate” the issues of womanhood in this era of angst.  It is a production well worth experiencing!

Teen Angst on display in DANCE NATION @ Dobama

Clare Barron, one of the new superstars of contemporary theater, who has been called an “insanely talented playwright,” was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and Obie Award for “DANCE NATION,” now on stage at Dobama.

The Pulitzer committee wrote that, “DANCE NATION” is "A refreshingly unorthodox play that conveys the joy and abandon of dancing, while addressing the changes to body and mind of its preteen characters as they peer over the precipice toward adulthood." 

 “As Dance Teacher Pat informs his young charges, the competition season will afford them the opportunity to see a whole world beyond their hometown of Liverpool, Indiana. They’ll venture to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Akron, Ohio; and, if they keep winning, the grand finale, a competition known as the Boogie Down Grand Prix, in Tampa Bay, Florida.”  

The young, naïve, small-town dreamers, fall for his line and quickly build anticipation of the type of experience of happy ever-after fairy tales and Disney movie princesses.

Don’t expect to see a polished troupe of trained dancers executing spectacularly choreographed routines.  The playwright’s directions clearly indicate that adult actors, with limited dance training, should play the adolescent characters, who have frank discussions about sex and puberty that inadvertently reveal just how much they still don’t know.  They freely use words like “pussy” and “circumcision,” taunt and fake-praise each other, and display jealousy, as they probe their hopes and dreams.

The Dobama production, under the adept direction of Shannon Sindelar, is well-conceived.  Performed without intermission, the play is nicely paced.

In choosing the cast, the director, according to the information she shared in a pre-curtain discussion, stressed acting over dance skills.  Attention was made to insure age, race and physical variety.

Performing as a unit, the cast (Sidney Edwards, Avani Hamilton, Calista Zajac, Anne McEvoy, Carolyn Demanelis, Delee Cooper, Corlesia Smith [who came into the cast shortly before opening as replacement for the injured Mariama Whyte], Wesley Allen and Tom Woodward) is excellent.  Each develops a clear and identifiable realistic character, with flaws and angst.

The technical aspects of the show are well conceived, with Cameron Caley Michalak’s dance bar-centered jungle gym back-wall set allowing for development of interesting stage pictures.  

Capsule judgement:   Though the Dobama production is well conceived, the language, over-wrought angst and dramatic structure render it probably not a play for everyone.  It’s worth going to observe the talented cast.

“DANCE NATION,” runs through March 29, 2020 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  The Cleveland premiere of THE OTHER PLACE.  Juliana is a brilliant drug-company scientist. She is giving a speech.  Through it all she constantly refers to "the other place", a cottage on Cape Cod that the family once owned, and a place where Juliana feels she may reunite with her missing daughter and find some peace of mind.  (April 24-May 24-2020).