REVIEW: BPF at Spotlighter's: Hope's Arbor
Sitting at my computer writing this review has given me great pause, unlike when I am reviewing most other shows. The difference this time is that the play's content has really made me think – A LOT – about technology and our reliance upon it. Like the play itself, I find myself thinking about the frightening possibilities of cell phones, blue tooth technology, GPS and Blackberrys/Sidekicks. It is a whole new world out there, and it is damned scary. The play in question is Hope's Arbor, by local award-winning playwright, Rich Espey, which continues its run at Spotlighters this Friday and Saturday. The extremely high quality of the script is testimony to its inclusion in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, and this nearly perfect presentation of it speaks volumes for Spotlighters' increasingly consistent, professional quality theatre. With only two performances left, don't miss this one!
Before getting to the meat of the review, let me dispense with a few relatively small qualms with the play. First and foremost, act one of this topically and symbolically dense, verbose play is too long by maybe as much as 15 minutes. There is just too much going on, and sometimes there are things that are unnecessarily repeated. For example, we get it almost immediately that Hope, a 17 year-old girl, shoved away at an uptight boarding school doesn't fit in. Two or three character quirks and incidents with other students bring this more than into focus, and the other half a dozen quirks/incidents only serve to drag down the obvious rather than add layers that I think was Espey's intention. Happily, act two is much more compact, and ultimately more effective. Throwing in the mysterious appearance of Psalm 23 on email, blackberry/sidekick (aka "Razorclam" in the program notes) screen, etc. comes across as a forced religious image, and as it essentially leads nowhere should be excised from the script altogether. Finally, and this may be a personal aversion, as I've mentioned it in other reviews for BPF productions, when a character announces she is from Baltimore, it seems forced and oddly unreal. I know people do come from Baltimore, just like they come from LA or Akron, but in this (and other cases like this) it seems a little too pat. Other than these small issues, I found the production otherwise top-notch in every respect.
In a nutshell, Hope's Arbor is a coming of age tale for the 21st century – timeless issues of adolescence that haven't changed in centuries as filtered through our technologically advanced lifestyles – which offers a fresh perspective and a startling twist on universal themes. Script quibbles aside; Espey has delivered a story that is sharp in its observations of society today and it use of language, and scathing in its attack on the results of relying too heavily on technology, and even questioning its benefits as a moral. The first 15 minutes or so of the play are masterfully written and grippingly staged (by director Jayme Kilburn); much of the dialogue is written as email/IM and is as rapid fire and crisp, and disarmingly realistic in its words and pacing. No sooner is one idea out there than it is responded to – instant gratification – until it becomes painfully obvious that everyone is talking, but no one is listening. Kilburn has staged a high-powered opening, where characters swirl around each other as they "chat" and "share" and "philosophize" and even "parent" one another, eyes locked on their respective screens or locked on a distant place as they listen to their blue tooths (teeth?). Major decisions made, pleas for understanding plead, and all while not one of them looks each other in the eye. Dramatically efficient, theatrically staged and outstandingly delivered, these opening moments are a stunning, mouth-agape overture to the first of many deeper moments which effectively bring the proceedings to a halt. Normally, this severe disruption of pace would hurt a production, but here it enhances. At the crescendo of the opening sequence, everything stops dead when the first characters confront each other face-to-face, eye-to-eye. The dialogue slows, the emotions, so rapidly accessible when "online" and now painfully hard to articulate. What a magnificent metaphor for the state of communication in the world today.
Later, as act one builds again (everyone is back online) the tension mounts. This is largely due to the fact that Espey has wisely chosen not to make this into a modern, trite After School Special – he could have gone into internet predators, pornography, internet scams and the like. In fact, every time it seems he may be going there, he goes somewhere else – using technology as a nanny, using technology as a personal CSI agent, using technology as a marital aid. Brilliant, highly effective, and alarming.
Which brings us to another magnificent climax, and pretty darned clever way of introducing an intermission – which I will not reveal here. Without ever really stating a position, it is clear that the play and its writer have a point of view, but without hitting us over the head with it, he allows us to see the pros and cons and to feel like we are deciding on our own how we feel about these issues. All of this – the script and the staging – has also led me to another surprising point given the technical nature of the ideas: Hope's Arbor is a terrific play, and would be much less effective in, say, a movie format. Not being able to see the screens or see the technology at work forces us to see the users, and therefore, forces us to look at the people, not their toys.
Technically, the show is also masterful. Settings (designed by Fuzz Roark) and lighting (by Galen Lande) combine to add visually to the themes and theatricality of the piece. And the phone ringing/email alert signals/etc. are perfectly timed – in lesser hands it would be a nightmare. But it is the acting that really makes the piece thrive.
There is not a weak member of this 6-actor ensemble, which in the above mentioned scenes move as one like a well-oiled machine. No small fete considering the density of language and hair-trigger timing the work requires. And separately, each cast member makes a significant contribution. In the smallest of the roles, Dina Epshteyn is appropriately harsh and self-absorbed as a classmate of Hope's. Her motto: JOX ROCK!!!, which I think that says it all for the character. In another small, but pivotal role, Madonna Refugia scores as Saiko, a Japanese student at a rival school who finds an unusual friendship with Hope, speaking to her only in Haiku. Refugia delivers one of the most beautiful of the play's passages, a tale of her growing up as a subtle metaphor for child abuse. As the third of Hope's "friends" is Eric Berryman as Chris Reed, whose mantra, " What the world sees of me is what I choose to show the world" brings home another amazingly well-put point by Espey – Hope has friends, but none are "real" – they are online friends (is that what we now believe is a relationship?). As Hope's parents, Mark Scharf and Alison Buckley do some excellent work, peeling back layers of deeply written characters. Scharf gets to play what has become increasingly rare these days, a sympathic, empathetic straight man, who hides a secret by hiding behind technology – his character is a master at multi-phone lines and word processing. And Buckley mines new gold out of a mother who sacrifices everything and lives her life through her daughter; and like her husband, she hides a secret behind her pushing and manipulating of those around her to achieve an unachievable level of status. It is no wonder that Hope seeks friendship and refuge from another character whose motto is "If everyone in the world became friends with one lonely person, no one would be lonely." Courtney Krimmel is a revelation as the titular Hope, giving one of the most unflinchingly realistic portrayals of a teenager I've ever seen . She is, quite simply, an excellent actress, and I look forward to seeing her again on the Baltimore stage. As written, Hope is an overweight, underachieving oddball, and while it is clear that the lovely Miss Krimmel is none of those in life, she makes one ache with sympathy for what her character is going through, and not all of it is your typical coming of age stuff. Her Hope must also shed the burden of a techno-crazy society to find truth in an increasingly out of reach reality – a burden we must all shed.
PHOTO by Amy Jones: BACK: Dina Epshteyn, Eric Berryman, Mark Scharf, Alison Buckley FRONT: Madonna Refugia, Courtney Krimmell