Theatre is economy. It has to be, considering the inordinate costs necessary to mount any given production. There’s a reason your front-row seats aren’t cheap, folks, and thus the theatrical process becomes one of sacrifice: deciding which elements — costumes, lights and so on — can receive fewer resources without compromising the integrity of the artistic vision.
But there is, of course, an alternative to the spectacle of a full-tech extravaganza. The “bare stage” show, at times an artistic choice and at others a financial necessity, cuts right to the dramatic bone. Stripping away the common excesses of a dressed stage, a bare stage focuses in on the heart of any performance: the relationships of characters and development of plot and theme, as set by the playwright, interpreted by the actors and their director.
Junior Madison Mondeaux’s dual production of “Token to the Moon” and “Railing It Uptown” exemplifies this concept of bare stage economy, both financially and otherwise. It is clear from lights up that not much was spent on these shows. Four chairs borrowed from the department are the only set pieces; props are limited to a book and a handful of shopping bags. But that is the beauty of the bare stage, ladies and gentlemen: from so little, so much is created; the very definition of economy.
With these four chairs, a subway station materializes. Remove two and we are transported inside the train itself. Mondeaux, having previously directed in Studio Theatre, clearly understands this use of space as representation and it is a credit to her skill that the shows are ordered from big platform to little subway car. The shrinking of imagined space creates a sense of intimacy that further draws the audience into the world(s) of the play(s).
First, “Token to the Moon”, a bittersweet comedy about the telekinetic Smitty (sophomore Micah Snow), who, in trying to read the mind of Doris Ann (junior Erica Baumgardner), ends up raw and vulnerable at the revelation of his own insecurities and flaws. The dynamic between these two actors is incredibly deceptive. As the play progresses, the charming chemistry first felt between the characters is overtaken by a creeping sense of unease. Snow’s Smitty, almost mechanical in his reading of Doris Ann’s mind, stutters and stumbles when the tables turn and his own mind is read.
Baumgardner’s Doris Ann, on the other hand, is flirtatious from the start: even when she is startled by Smitty’s knowledge of her thoughts, her glances away come off as coquettish rather than uncertain. And unfortunately, this is the problem I had with “Token”: not so much Baumgardner’s acting, but by what her looks away suggested.
Because bare stages rely on very little to communicate everything, the parameters must be strictly set. In the course of “Token”, both Smitty and Doris Ann attempt to leave and, apparently, succeed at doing so. They manage to make their way off-stage, then, after a moment or so, return to the scene “for some reason.” That reason, presumably, is the line previously said by their partner, but already the momentum is lost. Keeping characters on stage, forcing them to interact with each other keeps the tension high, propels the action forward.
Though the subway station may be a cavernous one, the near-constant presence of both Smitty and Doris Ann creates a much more intimate environment. But by having these characters leave, even briefly, or by frequently turning away from their partner, we as an audience are reminded of the immensity of the space and the pressure is lifted.
This, I felt, was a uniform problem across both pieces this past weekend. “Railing It Uptown” was a tense and dynamic nail-biter, and the relationship between sophomore Sammie Zimay’s Woman in Black and junior Paula Castanos’ Woman in White were alternately terrifying and incredibly sweet. But there were moments, brief though they were, when it occurred that this subway platform, or this subway car, was abnormally larger than one would suspect.
Still, Mondeaux has an absolutely fantastic sense of stage picture. Relying heavily on a balanced stage left and right, those brief moments where negative space dominates and unbalances the scene are quite stunning (especially in “Railing It Uptown”’s more intimate moments). An intense program was created by pairing together “Token to the Moon” and “Railing It Uptown.” Thematically sound, at times precise, Mondeaux’s production is nevertheless economical, creating much from so little.