BWW Special Feature: 99 and Under the Radar, Indie Theatre's Movers and Shakers
Welcome to 99 AND UNDER THE RADAR: A LOOK AT INDIE THEATER'S MOVERS AND SHAKERS, BroadwayWorld's new weekly series that showcases standout productions and production companies from the independent theater scene in New York City. Each week, independent producer Michael Roderick will be discussing the latest goings on in the theatrical wings, highlighting those with potentially bright futures.
This Week's Topic: Collaborative Creation and Authentication
There is something almost mystical about theatre that is experiential. One sees this most often in colleges where the audience is sent into a room and an actor is already on the stage or sitting in the seat next to you, or passed out on the stairs leading into the theatre etc. It gives you the idea that the show has started and that you as the audience member are a participant in the process. Often this comes off as a simple gimmick and isn't seen outside of the classroom, but every once and awhile a group executes the experiential production in such a way that it is entirely effective and thought-provoking. Tin Lily's Authenticating Eileen does this with intelligence and panache.
To begin with, the program reads "Soderman & Soderman would like to welcome you to tonight's production of:" and instantly the question arises as to who Soderman & Soderman are and what is this all about. As the audience enters the stark white space, they are greeted by two employees of Soderman & Soderman and asked to take a seat and that the presentation will begin shortly. There is also a very inventive way of taking care of the pre-show curtain issues. The stage is relatively bare with exception of a chair or two and the hospital-like expanse of the space suggests research and development. Thus as an audience, we discover why we are here. The basic concept is that Soderman & Soderman is a company that helps people identify their more "authentic" self through "qualitative data analysis" and "curating". This in and of itself is a fascinating concept for a narrative that explores how one test subject (Eileen) adjusts to the curating process, but what's even more fascinating is the script's creation. What playwright came up with something this complex?
The answer: The cast and the director. Most people cringe when the word "devised" is used for a theatre piece because there is usually a lack of narrative and more often than not, the performers disagree on so much that the piece that comes out usually looks like five or six different performances. This is not the case at all in this work that is so streamlined, it's hard to believe there was not one playwright for it. This is a credit to the thoughtful direction of Jillian Johnson who puts in her director's note: "This production was collaboratively written, developed, and is being performed tonight by the cast and crew. We came together last September 2009 with the instigation of Self-consumption and Identity. This is the result of our Journey. I hope you enjoy" --and enjoy it we do. The show is incredibly well-acted and structured with multimedia projections and video work that is both engaging and haunting. It addresses questions of the power of social networking, the reliance on an internet identity, the concept of becoming "better" than someone else, as well as many moral questions. Through Johnson's direction the evening makes a solid narrative that leaves the audience with a lot to talk about. This all would be very difficult to execute without the amazing performers and this production has that in spades.
Jared Miller's Nigel Soderman is effectively smarmy and cult-like and he effortlessly shifts to "Disco" Jimmy Sook, Eileen's father who is a stand up comedian reminiscent of Andrew Dice Clay. Miller's execution of each role is impressive as he really plays two completely opposite characters and turns on a dime throughout. Equally athletic is the always dynamic Hollis Witherspoon who begins the evening as our greeter and an employee of Soderman & Soderman, yet effortlessly shifts throughout the show to the bubble gum popping ditzy Kimberly "Sparkle" Sook. Witherspoon gave a very impressive performance is Tin Lily's last production Eat and continues her streak with her solid work in this production. Karim Muasher as Tim Oliver, Eileen's hapless boyfriend who does everything he can to keep her in his life, plays the role with a great deal of emotion and also plays a mean Ukulele. Monica Rounds portrayal of a performance artist and a switchboard operator are both very strong, and has some really great comedic moments during her early actions with the socially inept Eileen. Eileen's curator played with extreme exuberance by Kate Middleton has some incredibly strong moments especially in her final conversation with the transformed Eileen. Ryan Fenk has an absolute mastery of deadpan delivery as one of our plastic greeters and later as Kimberly's disaffected husband and Annie Branson knocks its out of the park as the incredibly earthy yet arguably insane Nina Soderman and later as Eileen's mother. And Nora Jane Williams as Eileen Sook is absolutely heart breaking. She begins the show in such low voice as well as mannerisms and finishes with emotion and pathos that is big enough to fill the room.