Successful experiments

Last weekend was an especially experimental time for the University of Pittsburgh’s Repertory Theatre, which performed two one-act lab shows before audiences in the Cathedral of Learning. Up first was The Truth Teller, a play written by Diana Glancy and directed by Pitt senior Joseph J. Jackson, followed by the controversial Phaedra’s Love, written by Sarah Kane and directed by senior Andrew McNally.

The Truth Teller

The Truth Teller begins mysteriously. The movement cast — six female actresses dressed in black — emerge from various corners of the stage, producing gestures and sounds that make it clear they’re supposed to be animals. For most of the opening sequence, which lasts at least five minutes, the animals crawl, slither, and hop about the stage with form that’s both beautiful and intriguing — it would be perfect, if only it were a little shorter.

As the lead (human) characters begin speaking, the nature of The Truth Teller becomes clear — it is a thought-provoking work depicting the Native American struggle to cope with the arrival of white colonists. An unnamed man and woman, played respectively by Brittany Andrews and Nate Jedrzejewski, explore the impact of European settlers on their lives — in addition to the effect on age-old themes, truth included.

The man, who identifies himself as half-white, tells the woman about the new things white men have shown him — socks, weighted doors, the Bible. The woman, both amusing and somewhat pitiful, continues to misunderstand what he teachers her; she thinks that socks weigh doors shut, for example.

As the title suggests, the play’s primary debate concerns truth. “How can something like truth be changeable?” the woman asks, asserting her faith that the idea of truth passed down from the elders is enduring. The man sees truth as more dynamic, insisting that the elders’ vision and that of the white man, the Bible included, might both be right.

Overall, the performances in The Truth Teller were excellent; Jedrzejewski and Andrews fell into their roles with visible conviction, despite the fact that neither of them was the least bit Native American. The movement cast was equally impressive, holding uncomfortable poses on all fours in a performance that showed both dedication and realism.

Phaedra’s Love

English playwright Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is at once disturbing and comical, vulgar and absurd — and this is evident from the very beginning. The play begins with only Prince Hippolytus (played by Zack Singer) on the stage, masturbating into a dirty sock. The action soon moves to a dialog between Queen Phaedra (John Graham) and a doctor (Andrea E. Gordon), wherein the two ponder the possible causes of Hippolytus’ sudden depression, weight gain, and seclusion. Phaedra, dressed in a flamboyant kimono accessorized by a sloshing martini, hints at her attraction to Hippolytus (her stepson), an attraction she vehemently denies when questioned by the actor. The truth comes out in a later scene when Phaedra confesses her love to Strophe, her daughter.

It’s only a matter of time before Phaedra confesses her feelings to Hippolytus himself, who absorbs this news with cruel indifference. Desperate, Phaedra offers Hippolytus a “birthday present” — which turns out to be oral sex. (In her defense, it really was his birthday.) Hippolytus dismisses her, even after receiving his gift, which drives Phaedra to suicide.

In the aftermath of Phaedra’s death, the locals accuse Hipppolytus of raping her, and he is sent to jail. A fellation, two murders, and a castration later, the play ends bleakly and enigmatically, leaving the audience members much to ponder.

Phaedra’s Love featured a host of talented actors, but none could compare to junior John Graham, who was literally born for the part of Phaedra. Graham’s Phaedra was both ridiculous and relatable, eliciting laugher and sympathy from the audience simultaneously with each line.

“I had talked to [the director] before auditions happened,” Graham said. “And he said, ‘There’s really no part for you unless you want to play a chick.’” Graham was up for the challenge, auditioning for the part against a slate of females. “I think I might be the first man ever to play Phaedra [in any production],” he said.

The absurdity of a man playing a woman helped calm down the disquieting play, Graham explained. “It auto-alleviates some of the realism,” he said.

From Native American profundities to fellatio, last weekend’s lab performances had it all. We can only wait to watch the Pitt Repertory Theatre’s upcoming show, Arthur Miller’s The American Clock, starting Feb. 20.