farthThere’s a different vibe entering a mainstage than there is a Studio show. A level of elegance and professionality. Perhaps it’s because of the largeness of Harbach Theater with its many seats, or maybe it’s the fact they collect tickets and have full-color programs. My guess is that it has much to do with the impeccably-done, elaborate sets by Associate Professor of Theatre Craig Choma. Whatever the reason, the expectation for a mainstage show is higher than those student-directed works in Studio Theater. As they should be, since on top of being directed and designed by faculty members, they also have first pick of the student actors and designers. With all that going for them, and a four-night run, going to see a mainstage holds the most expectation in the theatre season.
This term’s mainstage was “The Island of Slaves” by the 18th century French playwright Pierre Marivaux, translated by Knox’s own Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder, who also directed the production. I’ll admit that as I sat down in Harbach I was skeptical. After all, hearing “18th century French playwright” and whatever the term “commedia dell’arte” means didn’t really get my blood pumping about the performance. The set, a series of mismatched windows, doors, and siding stacked up in three sections around a platform “island” structure, didn’t answer many questions. What unfolded was a postmodern delight, adding modern themes to an old story.
I think the set itself is representative of many of the successes of the play. A maze of drawers with props and doors that slide to reveal TV screens, the rustic-looking set was both functional and modern in unexpected ways. Thus was the play, a cacophony of old and new coming together to tell the story of servant and master swapping lives, all along with the backdrop of the Islanders, creatures of the theatre that never left the stage the entire performance.
The play was comical and theatrical and, at ninety minutes, contained itself nicely. Yet there were quite a few times where it simply stopped short of really going for it. I felt the seed of something truly great sparking, but not quite igniting. I loved the modern element of the screens, video camera, powerpoints and iPad, and the “Law & Order” scene was probably my favorite thing I’ve seen this term, but the modern aspects fell short of being integral and overarching. I greatly appreciated them, but felt like the play just teetered on the edge of being ingenious, inventive and stylized. At times it achieved this purpose, while other moments fell flat.
There was nothing flat, however, about the acting. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for ensemble shows, but it would be hard to find much fault in the performances given by the Islanders junior Parker Adams, senior Katie Greve, and freshmen Nabiha Mansoor and Peter Rule. While much of the laughs sprung from their characters, I was even more impressed by their ability to stay on stage the entire show inhabiting characters that were at times silent observers and at times active participants. They were what rooted the show in a fantastical setting in which the other four characters interact, struggle and reconcile. Junior Lee Foxall and freshman Van Johnson played off each other in beautifully offering us a bromance to root for, something much appreciated by the audience. Senior Sophie Utpadel was able to add heartbreak to the hatred we originally felt towards her character and show cracks in the porcelain of high society. Her counterpart, sophomore Hanna Levine, showed some serious comedic chops, offering a much needed female jokester to the mix.
Some may argue that the themes of the show were unprogressive. To these people I urge you to look deeper. When viewing just the words spoken one can stumble upon the fact that it is, indeed, a play from the 18th century. As a historical piece it obviously disregards much social progressiveness. Yet through characters’ reactions (mainly from the Islanders), lines about women as the fairer sex were scoffed at, almost making fun of the oppression at the time. Here too, like the rest of play, they didn’t go far enough. Not every potentially problematic line had this reaction, and thus it was harder to see the modernization of the themes.
Overall this mainstage was delightfully comical, and I was quite smitten with the modern upgrades, but to truly meet my perhaps overly-high expectation (after all, with a short term there is only so much a play can do) I needed more commitment to those modern elements, and for everything to be pushed a bit further. Show me a world I can’t quite put my finger on, and you have me hooked. Commit 100 percent to that world, and I’ll let you take me anywhere.
I felt “Island of Slaves” needed that extra commitment.