BWW Review: Emerging Playwright Olivia Cordell Gives Us a Glimpse into the Millennial Psyche with THIS OUR NOW
Kids today aren't happy. That's according to an abundance of research that confirms millennials suffer from mental illnesses at much higher rates than previous generations. Specifically, more and more 20-something year olds are being diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. The jury is still out on whether or not these illness have actually increased, or if today's youth are just more comfortable coming out with their problems, or if modern doctors are just more willing to attach psychiatric labels to people going through tough times. However, no matter the reason for this apparent spike, one thing is for certain: "Generation Me" isn't happy.
Emerging playwright and actress Olivia Cordell tackles the theme of millennial discontent in her new play, This Our Now, opening June 14 at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre as part of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival. I attended a press preview last Sunday and was amazed with how perfectly this play managed to personify and stage the millennial psyche. Watching Cordell's play, you'll feel like you're actually in the head of a typical anxiety filled millennial -- spying on their innermost thoughts.
The story follows the relationships of two young couples from cradle to grave (which is actually only about ten months, but that's a lifetime in the millennial dating world). The characters in this modern love tale don't have names. Cordell plays "A", an anxious woke feminist with asthma. Casey Dunn plays her boyfriend, "B", a broish party boy douchebag guided primarily by his penis. Alexa Radson plays "C", a conservative and beautiful nice girl. Nate Werner plays her boyfriend, "D", who is a sexually boring geek. While the characters are intentionally written as archtypes, their individuality is not important -- it's the toxic thoughts that they represent and personify that resonates.
How Was It
Short Answer: Cordell shines the spotlight of truth on millennial angst. What that Truth is, though, changes from person to person. I have my ideas, and so will you after seeing this show. This Our Now is ambiguous; like all philosophical questions, the is meaning blurry, and that's the joy of it. If you're a millennial, you will see yourself somewhere on the stage. You will have ideas. You will think. And that's the beauty of this introspective, yet very entertaining, work.
Longer Answer: It's interesting that so many people in my generation aren't satisfied with their lives. Millennials in America are fortunate to live in the most luxurious time in human history thus far. Even the most needy today have better access to food, medicine, comfort, and entertainment than royalty did in Feudal times. Due to advances in medicine and technology, our homeless are at a lower risk of dying from infections than King Edward VII was just 100 years ago. We have instant access to really cool technology and entertainment that was just a mere fantasy twenty years ago. Our society is more educated, accepting, and aware of our impact on other people and the planet than any other society in history. Not too long ago, we were trying to treat STDs with leeches. It's safe to say that anyone living in a first world country in 2017 is in the top 1% from a historical perspective -- no matter how meaningless or poor they feel.
But, of course, we don't compare our lives to the lives of nobility in medieval Europe. We don't compare our lives to those struggling to survive in the periphery, off in developing countries. Instead, we compare our lives to the awesome lives our friends portray on social media. We compare our current position to the position we feel we should be in, instead of taking a moment to enjoy all the luxuries we do have. In my non-medical opinion, it is this disconnect between where millennials perceive they are, and where they think they should be, that is the root cause of the age of anxiety.
I saw this hypothesis play out in This Our Now. About a third of the way through, there is a powerful moment when news breaks that a gunman shot up a black church. D's dad was at the church and was shot. Interestingly, the character who just lost his dad in the most violent way possible is not nearly as outraged as A is. A, who is a feminist, explodes in fury after her white boyfriend, B, makes an innocent, yet microaggressive, statement about race relations while watching the story play out on the news.
The audience witnesses A spinning into an uncontrollable frenzied outrage at B's statements, as D, whose father was likely just killed, is subdued. The contrast between A and D in this moment resonates. A is in hysterics because her boyfriend is not thinking the way she feels he should be thinking. She's upset because the world is messed up, and does not conform to the way she thinks the world should be. D, on the other hand, accepts that his father was just shot and there's absolutely nothing he can do about it. D's grounded in the moment, while A's so far in her head she begins to actually hyperventilate, upset that she's unable to control things she has no power over. If A and B were by themselves, it might be easier to feel empathy for A's outrage, but perspective is given when the true victim of the shooting is standing just feet away from her.
It's easy to see that A has no business being more upset than D over the massacre, yet this is how so much of our millennial life is spent. Instead of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, we get caught up in our own bubble. The "first-world problems" in our lives become overwhelming. The fact that you are 22 and still attend a community college might be a big deal in the universe inside your head, but in the grand scheme of things that problem is small and trivial. The fact that you have a job that doesn't pay as much as you like, that you don't think is "meaningful", pails in comparison to having a one in two chance of dying of the black plague if you would have lived in the 1300s. In America, millennials are even more anxious than the natives of sub-Saharan Africa, who literally have to worry about getting mauled by lions every time they step outside, or dying of dysentery if they get unlucky while drinking water.
I'm not saying these first-world problems aren't worth fighting over -- they are. It's the only way progress ever happens, be it world change or personal self-improvement. But, are these problems worth risking your mental health over? According to health records, today's millennials apparently say "yes."
Cordell employees a very interesting writing style that very cleverly matches the anxious themes of the show. You'll feel like you're drowning when watching This Our Now. Her dialogue flies at you as quick as bullets, and she's penciled in no scene breaks. She calls her style "hyper-minimalism", something she picked up while studying at the British American Drama Academy in London, and decided to bring back home to the states. Cordell's uniquely schizophrenic, yet very poetic, writing style is appropriate for this piece, and works wonders to draw the audience into the dark and unsure world she's created.
The cast personified their respective millennial psyches masterfully. Casey Dunn portrayed B, the un-woke frat boy driven by his penis, with a loveable hideousness that made his seemingly cliché character very much a real person. Alexa Radson represented C, the conservative nice girl, with a sweetness that brought just a little bit of light to this otherwise very heavy production. Nate Werner embodied D, the sexually awkward geek, with an authenticity that he may have gained by majoring in Physics at USC. Lastly, Olivia Cordell completely owned the role of A, the hypersensitive and anxious feminist, to the point I believe she tailored this incredibly well-fitting role just for herself.
Mad props must be given to the show's director, Aubrey Rinehart. Rinehart had the difficult, yet creatively fulfilling, task of staging Cordell's hyper-minimalist script, which lacked any stage directions, scene breaks, or even character names. Rinehart rose to the occasion and created the dark world of anxiety that brought life to Cordell's story.
This Our Now offers an interesting glimpse into the millennial psyche, and is a must see this Fringe season. I highly recommend.
How to See It
This Our Now opens next Wednesday, June 14, at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre as part of the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, and runs throughout the month June. Tickets are $12 and are available here.
The Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre is located at 5636 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90038.
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Photo Credit: Jack Ritten