Arts & Culture / Mosaic / Theater / March 4, 2009

New theater format challenges tradition

The ‘fourth wall’ of theatre speaks of the imaginary wall on the stage through which the audience views the characters. “Beyond the Fourth Wall,” a devised theater production both written and acted by the students in the Theory and Performance class, went beyond that traditional ‘fourth wall’ before the show had even begun.

Performed in-the-round, Harbach Theatre had been set up so that the audience sat on both sides of the stage, forcing the actors to break from the usual necessity of facing forward. Instead, action took place in multiple directions, providing multiple layers of action. Leaving behind all traditional confines of the stage at times, actors emerged from within the audience itself.

The performance was broken up into three smaller stories—I U, Cranked/In Demand, and Before I Wake—transitioning between each with the help of the entire ensemble performing robotic motions. Although at times amusing, it was unclear how exactly the transitions contributed to the overall work and made shifts between scenes uncomfortable.

Scene changes also involved a ‘mysterious trunk person,’ who dragged onto the stage a large trunk from which the characters in the next act emerged. Present throughout the performance, the trunk served to unify individual segments that otherwise appeared slightly disjointed.

The first act (or ‘House,’ as defined by the performers), I U, relates the story of a couple with a seemingly idealistic relationship, until it is duly revealed that the man is having a secret online relationship. Making clever employment of the trunk as a computer—the man’s romantic interest emerges from within and speaks to him as if through a web camera—the story made excellent use of pantomime. It stood out with special emphasis due to sparse scenery, the lack of over-embellishment providing greater focus on the acting. Mikah Berky, playing the role of Hannah, was especially adept in this area; there was never a question of what her character was thinking or feeling. Although the ending was slightly predictable, the acting was generally strong throughout the segment.

Cranked/In Demand tells the story of a girl named Clara, sent into a magical land on her 18th birthday. There she encounters salespeople who coerce her to trade her soul for things such as lucrative modeling careers, eventually forcing her to choose between the land of her childhood and the land of her desires. The act ends with Clara realizing that growing up really means making one’s own way in the world. Although demonstrating particularly excellent acting (notable especially in the case of D’Angelo Smith, playing Maxton MaxMillion), the dialogue was a bit choppy and repetitive in nature, failing to explain clearly what was actually occurring. Sometimes, Clara’s lines seemed to be written for someone much younger than her suggested 18 years. However, the act successfully continued the theme of going ‘beyond the fourth wall,’ as the salespeople interacted directly with the audience in a humorous manner that brought originality to the piece.

The last act, Before I Wake, was most clearly based in the fantasy realm. A retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” it portrayed with incredible feeling the attempts by Rose’s father to keep her safe from the evil sorceress. A unique element was the presence of enchanted sleep as an actual character who mourns Rose’s awakening. The relationship between Rose and her enchanted sleep was both sweet and saddening and brought the play to a touching conclusion. Although at some points the acting felt a bit forced, overall the story was an engaging retelling of a familiar fairy tale, particularly clever in its communication of the passage of time. Of all the acts, this one carried the most emotional power.

The different acts of “Beyond the Fourth Wall” carried a common theme of choice—all of the characters were, in the end, forced to choose between two conflicting desires.

This, along with the clever use of the trunk, provided enough connection between the acts that the play felt like one large piece instead of three smaller works. Each of the three stories was supposedly based on a myth or a fairy tale, but precisely which one was unclear for the first two acts, leaving the third a bit out of place. Although greater unity between the segments may have been desirable and bits of the performance felt choppy or forced, overall, the devised theatre production was an enjoyable success.

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