Production at Purnell explores artistic conflict

If there’s one important lesson I learned from the School of Drama’s premiere production of Bob and Dave and Ren, it’s that every debate can be resolved with a gay threesome.

All jokes aside, this show — despite its murky alphabet-soup title — was a surprise treat. Bob and Dave and Ren is highbrow art talk disguised as all-male Dirty Dancing. Written and directed by Ben Ganksky, the show brings to life the polar philosophies of two artists who were both active from the 1960s to the 1980s. While installation artist Robert Irwin and influential Pop art painter David Hockney never actually interacted, their ideas came into contact through biographies written by Lawrence Weschler.

These are the Bob, Dave, and Ren of the title, though their characterizations are based not on the details of their biographies, but on their ideas. Bob is a cerebral, pretentious artist who disdains traditional narratives and instead wants to create a unique “experience” for his audience. Dave, who is more mainstream, though no less pretentious, prioritizes accessible storytelling that connects with his audience. The “thesis” of these men’s visions rains down on the audience with perhaps a little more force than necessary, though their main ideas are expanded upon through enough interesting tangents that I didn’t find the play dreadfully heavy-handed. Ren’s solution of course seems obvious: Art can be both an experience and a source of connection.

The play works because takes the philosophical, which could easily get dull, and makes it personal. Sweet and naïve Ren (played by junior drama major Petr Favazza) is a burgeoning playwright who decides to collaborate on a show with his old friend-but-maybe-more Dave (played with vitality and conviction by junior drama major John Way) as producer and his summer lover Bob (junior drama major Dylan Bright) as director. This turns into a collaboration wrought with personal and professional tensions. Ren must mediate between Dave and Bob as they butt heads over their conflicting creative visions and their mutual romantic feelings toward Ren. I was particularly intrigued by Bright’s characterization of Bob, who comes across more like a flannel-wearing camp counselor than the stereotypical chain-smoking artist.

What takes the play’s concept from “kind of neat” to “super cool” is its three-act structure, which reflects the philosophies of its three title characters. The first act is all Dave, a traditional narrative with fleshed-out characters to connect with and a plot to follow. The second act, the work of Bob, is a bit more avant-garde. With characters vanished and plot nonexistent, I put on color-coded headphones and obeyed a voice which told me to examine the theater walls and trace the octagon shape of the catwalk into my palm. One audience member — dubbed “the least lucky person in the room” — was instructed to read excerpts from the script for us all to hear. The other half of the audience was brought to an adjacent room, where I later learned they had been watching us from secret cameras. At times silly, relaxing, and unnerving, the second act forces the audience to confront the false reality that theater manufactures.

The third act follows Ren’s philosophy by attempting to blend narrative and experiential art. The actors take the stage once again to perform the culmination of all their rehearsals from act one: an excruciatingly long, repetitive, and not very skilled dance routine. While not the most enjoyable to watch, this act was extremely interesting. It wasn’t a story, per se, but in my boredom I found myself applying a story to the men’s stray glances and increasing exhaustion. When even that got boring, I disengaged from what was happening on stage, looking instead at the theater and at the expressions of my fellow audience members. As the act intended, I became hyper aware of this theatrical experience we were all sharing together.

I’ll admit that Bob and Dave and Ren is a niche show. Those who aren’t artists, or who don’t at least have a moderate interest in art, would likely find it impenetrable or just plain boring. Anybody uncomfortable with homosexuality would likely run to the door within the first ten minutes. But for me, a self-proclaimed “creator” and aficionado of queer media, this show represents my people debating exactly the kinds of questions I’ve mulled over time and time again.

The questions run the gambit: What is the purpose of art? How should a creator relate to their audience? Is my work original and real and good? Or maybe my critics — both external and internal — are right. Maybe I actually am full of shit. What I love about this show is that it taps into that nagging spark of uncertainty most artists never fully extinguish.

Even Bob can’t escape a little self-doubt. The explosive final confrontation between him and Dave showcased the acting chops of both men and featured sound-bites all-too-familiar to me from conversations with and about other artists, but I’ve never before seen it articulated on stage. Dave wrecks Bob. He calls him all talk and no substance, a failure of an artist who’s “not smarter” than everyone else — “just more arrogant.” Like any artist, Bob is sometimes inclined to agree with his critics, but what I took away from the exchange is that your self-doubt is often beside the point and sometimes you can only say “screw it all” and keep on creating anyway.

I haven’t seen Dirty Dancing, but I assume it also includes multiple steamy dance rehearsal scenes to songs like “I Had the Time of My Life.” This is not a laugh-out-loud “romantic comedy,” despite what the description tries to sell it as. Its most campy moment comes in the “resolution” of Bob and Dave’s argument. I’ll reassert that I take no issue with gay threesomes, especially as this trio had fabulous chemistry and had been selling the UST (unresolved sexual tension) for the better part of an hour. However, I also felt that a play so concentrated on intellectual discussion — at least in its first act — needed to have some sort of verbal peacemaking as opposed to, well, lovemaking.

Bob and Dave and Ren wholly commits to its unusual concept; it succeeds in creating an engaging story and a memorable experience all in one. While confining all philosophical dialogue to the first act gives the play a top-heavy feel, the following two acts provide, through demonstration, enough food-for-thought that the sacrifice is worthwhile. At least among certain audiences, I foresee Bob and Dave and Ren living a long, happy life together.