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.