BWW Reviews: World Premiere of THE FAULT Runs into Character Development Problems
Original pieces of theater are a tricky business. For every well-crafted, well-received new work, there are countless others that are less successful, to put it mildly. The Fault, a new drama by UT-Austin M.F.A. candidate Katie Bender, falls into the second category. While Bender does have a few interesting idea and glimmers of a strong central character, the ideas and the play as a whole feel unfinished, underdeveloped, and tediously dull.
Merely revisiting UT-Austin's press release for the production reveals some of the problems. In the press release, Bender is quoted as saying that "The play explores the way families create and pass down modes of communication, systems of understanding and ways of looking at the world. It asks what we inherit from our parents and what we choose to live by."
None of those lofty explorations are apparent in the production itself. Instead, what Bender gives us, or attempts to give us, is a family drama about teenage drug abuse. Parents Bill and Sarah (Lowell Bartholomee and Ellie McBride) have relocated their family to the Redwood forests of California and seem completely ignorant that their 14-year-old daughter, Star (Raquel Watson) is addicted to crystal meth. Star's overachieving big sister, Jane (Allison Stoos) is well aware of the problem and sees parallels between Star's issues and those of their half-sister, Angie (Estrella Gonzales), who has been kicked out of the house due to her own daemons with drug abuse.
Bender's largest problem is the character of Star. When audiences are introduced to characters of teenage drug addicts, their brains become full of questions. How long has this girl been using? Why is she using? What's going on at home? Has she been abused? What other drugs has she tried? How on earth do the parents not know? How is she paying for her drugs? Who is she doing drugs with? The questions go on and on, but Bender doesn't address any of them. If she did, she would have a compelling central character. Instead, the "she's a teen addict" skeleton of a character gives Watson very little to work with. Star could be a sad, scary, and honest interpretation of teen drug abuse, but she comes off as a hyperactive annoying kid sister and is often played for laughs. It's also odd that we never see Star partake in the drugs she supposedly is addicted to. The image of a 14-year-old doing drugs would be sickening to watch and would elicit an emotional response from the audience, but Bender seems too afraid to put the literal act of drug use on stage, as if she's intimidated by the topic she's chosen to write about.
The other actors unfortunately don't get anything better. The character of Jane is more concerned with finding her birth certificate than she is with her sister's drug problems, and a birth certificate, as Donald Trump would hopefully tell you at this point, does not a conflict make. Without a resonant conflict to work with, Allison Stoos can't make much out of Jane, and the character becomes whiney and unsympathetic. Estrella Gonzales gets a bit more to work with as the junkie half-sister who's lived on the streets for the past few years, but Bender doesn't know what she wants to do with the character, and ultimately Angie could be cut completely without much impact to the show. And while guest actors Lowell Bartholomee and Ellie McBride are both strong performers, their characters are so flat and undeveloped that, with the exception of a couple explosive outbursts, Bartholomee and McBride are left going through the motions.
And while we're on the subject of guest actors, I see a major problem with the way UT-Austin uses them. Yes, there is a benefit to having students share the stage with experienced actors, (the theater program at neighboring St. Edwards University uses them regularly, and TSU-San Marcos does on occasion), but students only benefit from guest actors when they actually share the stage. In the case of The Fault, only three students had such an opportunity. I see a problem when a collegiate theater program stages a five person show and two of those roles are played by guest actors. I understand that sometimes age requirements of certain roles may exclude students. I also understand that the UT-Austin Department of Theater and Dance has no control over how many characters Bender includes in her play, but they do have control over their season as a whole. Of their prior productions this season, Our Country's Good had a large ensemble cast quite appropriate for college performers, but Dial "M" for Murder was a five character piece, and their spring production of the large-cast musical In the Heights will feature outside talent. The consistent utilization of guest actors is a disrespectful disservice to the students, as is the penchant for staging small cast shows. These students are paying thousands of dollars for an education which includes the opportunity to hone their skills and their craft on stage and in front of an audience. No theater student pays thousands in tuition to be secluded to a classroom.