School of Drama premieres New Works
Last week, the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater in the Purnell Center came alive with the world premiere of three original works — Babylon, Stupid Ghost, and The Recluse — written by Carnegie Mellon School of Drama master’s students performed by acting undergraduates. Known as the School of Drama’s New Works Series, which sees an installment each fall and spring, the shows saw multiple performances between October 22 and 24th.
Babylon, written by master’s dramatic writing student Dan Giles and directed by masters directing student Terrence Mosley, started out completely black with noises of wind and wind chimes heightening awareness of sound. The light rose to reveal a bed, a table with four stools, a kitchen cart, and various plants, books, dolls, and shoes to demarcate the different areas in the house (bedroom, kitchen, and outdoor space). It was a rather dingy set with the bed frame vandalized and a bare mattress, along with minimal kitchen supplies.
As the chimes subsided, audience members were introduced to fraternal twins Sam (junior musical theatre major Josh Grosso) and Liza (junior acting major Chante Adams). They stay up until midnight in anticipation of their 17th birthday. Liza climbs into Sam’s bed as they reminisce about the past 17 years. It soon becomes obvious they are orphans; or at least that their parents are no longer in their lives. Their words become a whirlwind as the memories and nostalgia turn into a tornado of conversation. The audience was so immersed in the dialogue when I attended the show, that genuine surprise could be heard in the form of gasps when Liza kissed Sam. (Taboo subjects within the first 20 minutes, check.)
Taken aback and shocked, Liza and Sam go back to sleep while Owen (junior musical theatre major Avery Smith), their older brother, enters the kitchen to start the birthday breakfast. He fiddles with a sign that says “HAPPY BARTHDAY.” (Hmmm…that’s curious, he doesn’t know how to spell birthday?) Owen paces madly through the kitchen as he scrubs the table and readies the area, setting out the plates and utensils. Liza and Sam wake up and the tension is palpable between them. It also doesn’t help that Owen has a favorable disposition toward Liza. So with the sour attitude from Owen and his uncertainty about his relationship with his sister, Sam explodes on Owen, telling him he should have actually killed himself when he had the chance.
At this point I have deduced three things: one, Owen is bipolar or schizophrenic, or both; two, this is probably some apocalyptic future (10 years post-apocalyptic, to be exact), and three, their father was most likely taken by this apocalypse. We also figure out there is an incestuous love triangle amongst Sam, Liza, and Owen: Liza likes Sam, Owen likes Sam, and Sam is just confused.
But it isn’t until Owen has a bad spell and is convinced he is able to fly with angels, that things take a turn for the worst. Persuaded that he must cut pages out of books in order for that to happen, Owen advances toward a book with a knife in hand. Sam wants to keep the books pristine, as they are the only ones that exist as far as he knows. Sam is able to swipe the knife from his hands, but when a lost stranger comes into the house, Sam’s attention is averted. In Sam’s moment of distraction, Owen is able to grab the knife and stabs the stranger straight in the stomach. Intermission falls and the audience is left wondering if the stranger is dead or alive.
A 10 minute intermission becomes six months in the world of Babylon, and the stranger, Mason, is alive. In fact, he has gotten quite close with Liza since the last time we left him. This becomes a point of tension when he reveals to her that he raped a 13 year-old when he was 34. Meanwhile, in a fit of hysteria, Owen storms off into the post-apocalyptic outside just to have Sam run after him. Shortly after Sam returns with shivering Owen (it’s the middle of winter at this point), Mason leaves due to his resurfacing feelings toward much younger girls (read: Liza). As all three siblings lie in bed, Sam discloses to Liza his desire to look for their dad in “the city”, convinced he is still alive. She does not want him to leave her, and Sam says he will stay. But right after Liza falls asleep, Sam escapes. Liza wakes up to find Sam is no longer in the house, and has a good ol’ fashioned freak out a lá The Real Housewives of New Jersey. The play concludes with Liza daydreaming about having a child and naming her Summer — a season she vaguely remembers.
Babylon, being the most dramatic of the three plays, has an extra dimension of thoughtfulness. Giles clearly took the time to consider how three people would live if, for all they know, they were the only three people on the planet. The concept of a secret is useless, and the uncertainty of the future weighs heavily on them. The actors did a phenomenal job encompassing this idea well. Shout out to Smith, whose portrayal of a mentally ill man slowly going over the edge was hypnotizing.
Master’s dramatic writing student Savannah Reich’s hilarious Stupid Ghost, directed by John Wells Directing Fellow Ben Gansky, did not conform to a typical dramatic format. When I first walked in, the actors were already on the stage wearing the stereotypical ghost costume, white sheets with eyeholes cut out. They padded around the littered stage and “OOOOHHH!”-ed like ghosts as the speakers blasted white noise and occasional bursts of music. They each carried around seemingly random objects: a whisk, a red canoe paddle, a scuba mask, a rotary phone, etc.
The dialogue started with the removal of a sheet to reveal a girl (junior musical theatre major Amanda Jerry) with stark white makeup, wearing a sign around her neck, which is invisible to everyone else, labeled “GHOST.” She was joined by another ghost labeled as “Poltergeist” (junior acting major Ryan Avalos) in the program, to explain that ghosts aren’t as terrifying as one thinks; they just want to follow you, no scary business. Cue Veronica “Ronnie” (junior musical theatre major Erika Olson), who walks through the forest with a sign around her neck that says “PRETTY GIRL.” As the Ghost spots her, she instantly becomes infatuated. She follows her around, but restrains herself when it comes to interacting with her. The Poltergeist teases and tempts the Ghost to do more by possessing Ronnie’s mother (Note: Sign around the Poltergeist’s neck now says “MOTHER (POSSESSED)”). As Ronnie’s mother, the Poltergeist is in a position of power to mess with the Ghost.
Later that night, a teenage boy (as noted on his sign) named Jean Pierre (junior musical theatre major Adam Stern-Rand) invites Ronnie to the lake, simultaneously bragging about going off to college while she is stuck back home for one more year. Ronnie declines the invitation as she has homework to do. Ronnie goes back to her books, but becomes distracted when the telephone rings. It is the Ghost. The Ghost is desperate at this point to have some kind of interaction, so she pretends to be Ronnie’s human friend, which, easy to assume, does not go smoothly. When Ronnie exits the room, the Ghost pretends to be Ronnie. The Ghost sits at Ronnie’s desk, does the same expressions as her, and tries on Ronnie’s headband for the rest of the night. The Ghost walks outside where she runs into Jean Pierre. He notices the Ghost; In fact, he thinks she’s Ronnie. The headband the Ghost had put on has made her human and, in a moment of excitement the Ghost agrees to go down to the lake, despite what actual Ronnie had said. At this point, the Poltergeist knows what’s going on in terms of headbands, so he proceeds to lock Ronnie in her room to avoid revealing themselves.
Ronnie has no idea what is going on and goes full angsty-teenager mode. Meanwhile, in a canoe on the lake, the Ghost and Jean Pierre get romantic and decide to go a step further by having sex. Jean Pierre and the Ghost move onto an island where Ronnie, who escaped from her room, spots them. She is able to faintly see Jean Pierre and another girl. She calls out his name, but can’t be heard since the music is turned up too loud. Afterward, Ronnie ends up wandering the streets all night and falling asleep in a ditch. She wakes up the day of a Halloween party: a Halloween party where everyone dresses as a ghost (callback to the beginning). It is at this party where the Ghost and Ronnie take off their sheets to find out they are the same person. This revelation makes Ronnie frantic as the Ghost and Jean Pierre drive off in a car. Jean Pierre is incredibly confused, and the Ghost is incredibly overwhelmed by all the chaos she set off. With all these thoughts in her head the Ghost does not see Ronnie in the middle of the street. She crashes into her, not only killing Ronnie, but also killing Jean Pierre and leaving them in the same place as they were in the beginning: padding around pointlessly in the sound of white noise as ghosts.
Stupid Ghost was an unexpectedly funny play that was still rooted in a larger moral question. Just like Babylon, Stupid Ghost flirted with themes of life and death due to the delightfully on point, and at times self-deprecating, writing of Reich. But the comedy is not just in the writing. This play is for anyone who is a fan of physical comedy. From clueless, clumsy cooking to uninhibited, flailing dance numbers, not one of the actors in the group dragged the lightness of humor down. The audience was a constant chorus of laughter, knowing where to laugh and where to remain silent. This kind of play makes an impact based on how harmoniously the comedic and dramatic elements coexist.
The Recluse; or The Rise and Fall of a Makeshift Pal
The Recluse; or The Rise and Fall of a Makeshift Pal, written by master’s dramatic writing student Stephen Webb and directed by assistant acting professor Andrew Smith, is a dark comedy about a very lonely artist. His name is Herman (junior acting major Colin Whitney). He’s been walking into his art studio (a converted basement in his dead parent’s home) every day, and every day he takes a piece of cardboard and paints a sad face on it. His parents have passed away, and he is an only child without any friends, so Herman decides to build his own friend out of cardboard, paper plates, duct tape, and paint brushes. He names his new friend Hightower. Herman soon realizes that pieces of cardboard stuck together can’t talk, and concludes there is nothing left to live for. He attempts to hang himself before a voice tells him to stop. It’s Hightower (junior acting major Zach Fifer).
Hightower (a large puppet voiced by an actor) is able to talk, walk, and dance with his new pal Herman. Herman’s newfound pal inspires him to draw something different than sad faces — happy faces. Hightower then sings a song with lyrics that include, “If there’s more than two of us, then someone’s gotta go.” The first indicator that this relationship is dangerously close flies over Herman’s head. He’s just happy to have a friend. When Herman proposes to take his happy faces out into the world and sell them, Hightower completely shuts it down. Hightower believed those paintings were just for them, not for anyone else: example number two of a dangerous relationship.
After Hightower goes to sleep, Herman sneaks back down to his art studio to take the paintings out. However, after a little bit, he has a change of heart and returns the paintings; But not before Hightower noticed that they were missing. They get into a big fight with Hightower calling Herman “not faithful,” but ultimately making up after Herman confesses that Hightower saved his life. And after singing their signature song (“If there’s more than two of us, then someone’s gotta go”), in walks someone else, right on cue. It’s a fading art dealer by the
name of Francesca Del Monte (junior musical theatre major Molly Griggs).
Francesca had spotted Herman outside of an art store and got a “tingling feeling.” She even brought up Leroy (junior musical theatre major Chris Garber), a much older decrepit man who bears a resemblance to Herman. This man scares Herman of what his future will look like and Herman is now eager to impress Francesca, which might jumpstart his career. Sadly, none of his sad faces or happy faces impress her. But Del Monte is still convinced that he has the pièce de résistance hidden away somewhere. She begs him to show her anything new, but if Herman were to show Francesca Hightower, it might separate them.
Francesca and Leroy leave, still suspicious that Herman is hiding something. So they come back later at night and find Hightower. Francesca believes Hightower is a piece of art that will solve all of her gallery troubles. She is ecstatic, but is derailed when Herman is woken up by the commotion. Herman comes downstairs to see that Francesca has found Hightower. In an effort to keep Hightower with him and prove Hightower belongs in the studio, Herman screams with all his might to make Hightower talk. The effort fails but Francesca decides to leave Hightower in the studio; It is clear Herman is way too attached. Francesca leaves the studio and, instantly regretful, Herman slaps the life out of Hightower and goes back to a life of painting sad faces.
If Babylon and Stupid Ghost had a baby, this play would be the outcome. The performance was a perfect mixture of seriousness and levity. It started on a heavy note and ended on a heavy note, but Griggs, as Francesca, was able to lift the middle of the play while still playing an outrageously hilarious character. The color scheme throughout the play was also well executed. In the beginning, Herman practically blended in with his studio filled with cardboard, but when bright red Francesca walks in, she pops in the scene and marks the turning point in the play. It is also worth noting the pleasantly surprising use and excellent execution of puppeteering (a lá Avenue Q).
New Works gave a good range of plays that has me on the look out for next year’s crop of talented actors, directors, playwrights, and production teams.