*published on Feb 10, 2012 on the EDGE
“Created Equal” is a full evening of six one-act plays revolving around current political issues produced by The Red Fern Theater and presented, where they are in residence, at the Theater at the 14th Street Y.
“What the Wall Does” by Rob Askins, part of “Created Equal” (Source:Steven Williams)
First some back story, which I found fascinating regarding the mission of one of the newer non-profit theaters on the downtown scene. The Red Fern was founded in 2006 and “strives to provoke social awareness and change through theatrical productions.” To further this ideal, Red Fern partners each production with a philanthropy whose work can be advanced both through information sharing and a portion of the ticket proceeds.
For this undertaking, the artistic director Melanie Williams announced that in order to avoid the taint of partisanship, Red Fern had partnered with Materials for the Arts, an excellent service organization that has been around for decades and recycles all manner of stuff, making it available for free to artists. This both keeps landfills a little less full and allows designers, painters, directors to “shop” for free in the materials warehouse.
In “Created Equal”, each of the six plays is by a different writer and director, and only a few actors overlap, meaning the program is huge and 21 actors all bow for the final curtain call. Impressive. These six plays were not created equally, but rather ranged over the political landscape with pathos, humor (both black and frothy), and even had a musical twist to them.
The actors were for the most part talented, all had great creds and endless education, making me sad that part of our political commitments do not extend to valuing, educating, and employing artists they way other countries and cultures do. But that was my internal digress as I read nearly every bio at what seemed like an interminable intermission.
The first piece, “Occupied” written by J. Holtam and directed by Julie Foh was a pithy joke on the Occupy movement. Five actors argue about what they will present as their one-off for the afternoon protest rally. They utilize the hand signals of the Occupy gang and fight about whose rights are at the top of the tally ticker: women, gay, global warming, income, or gender inequality. I didn’t love this play, as there was too much showing and shouting rather than being and occupying the space.
The next was “Pull” with a subtitle of Emma’s getting married if her family doesn’t shoot him first, written by Anna Moench and directed by artistic director Williams. The three actors in this play were great. Pepper Binkley as the about-to-be bride, her Montana gun-toting sis played with swagger by Dana Berger, and the vegan, mouthy, tech-addicted, super reality, loud -speaking Debargo Sanyal was beyond perfect.
The short of it is that the two sisters change as one moves east and is now engaged to a guy who would never have been natively seen in Montana. The gals go skeet shooting but end up shooting the fiance’s cell phone, as he is so annoying. In between, there are great bits of banter, which illuminate the need for compromise based on the fact that people aren’t perfect.
The third, “Equal Time”, (which in the program is listed as the second, and they were wise to change the order), is a mini-musical. It is so smart, beguiling, and almost politically necessary that the non-partisan League of Women Voters, might consider producing it and running it all of “silly season.” I believe that was Obama’s moniker for the lead up to the elections.
Written by a mother/daughter team of Kristen Lee Rosenfeld for music and Luanne Aronen Rosenfeld for lyrics turned out a mini jewel which asks the question, “Can political debate be more than just song and dance?” There are a mere two candidates in this debate; a fictionalized pretty-boy Harvard grad (Jonathan Todd Ross) who grins manically and finds the light, and an African American woman (Cicily Daniels) in an ill-fitting suit who keeps getting her dander up when her opponent pushes her easily visible buttons.
As the candidates begin to answer questions that seem to have been plucked from real debates with pat answers, the campaign managers begin to sing over them with an internalized dialogue. “If your opponent’s record is spotty, point out that the opponent’s naughty.” Maybe it’s not the Gershwins, but in the end it hit what many of us are bemoaning — the false nature of politicians. The campaign managers who did the heavy lifting in singing and dancing are played by Kirsten Hopkins and Brian Charles Rooney, and were excellent, as were the candidates. I hope to see the full-length version of this work.
After intermission there were three more works: “What the Wall Does” by Rob Askins, directed by Dominic D’Andre is basically about the depraved sex cravings of certain elected officials. There is a red wall with two holes. There is a governor, wonderfully and evilly played by Lou Liberatore, there is his assistant Debargo Sanyal, completely different from his first role and equally compelling. Scott Rad Brown and Anna Van Valin administer oral ministrations from behind the wall. It is a tough, dark play that does manage to point up the slimier side of politics.
“Lex Before Marriage” by Jen Silverman, directed by Jessi D. Hill, explores an impending lesbian wedding where the favorite boy cousin David Jackson (who is great as a disaffected confused youth), and the bride Erin Buckley, all prim and uber-wise, discuss what it means to agree to disagree and still remain loving family.
This play would not be as compelling without a bouncing-off-the-wall character played to insane perfection by Parker Leventer. Leventer morphs from virgin farm girl to experimental bondage lesbian, to wife, to voyeur. She seems to embody the range that human sexuality can assume and her perambulations with a character named “the lesbian” (played with gusto by Stacey Raymond) take the short work to the edges of experimentalism while still parsing gay marriage in a linear format.
In the final play, “America, You Kill Me”, a liberal becomes a nihilist after a horrible accident. And it’s a comedy! Written by Joshua Conkel and directed by Scott Ebersold, it was too gory for me in an up-close-and-personal theater. As one of the more than 50 million Americans without insurance, the thought of a car accident is terrifying for me. I can’t readily travel to the edge of dark humor to decode the potential hilarity in an insured drunk decimating and murdering two college kids and not calling 911 because he can’t go back to jail.
The girl, wonderfully played by Nicole Beckwith, asks her cell phone “Siri call hospital” but the drunk, Tom Butler, crushes it under his big foot. The other student, trapped under rubble and realistically having paroxysms due to shock, is played well by Will Seefried. People did laugh. I did not. I wanted out of the scene of the accident. Do not sit close if you are bad with simulated gore, blood, convulsions, and the lack of recourse for so many of the uninsured.
In all it was exciting to see six new authors, directors, and a host of talent in a new theater. I wish what we were seeing was more uplifting, but then most of us desire equal pay, marriage for all, health care, and public services like education and housing aplenty so we can create and contemplate without the attendant fear. Alas.
“Created Equal” runs through February 12 at The Red Fern Theater, presented in residence the Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th St. For info or tickets visit www.redferntheatre.org