BWW Review: Six New Jersey Playwrights Are CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre
There's a quote projected against the flat, white wall at center stage. It's the now-infamous tweet from President Donald Trump stating that 'Theater should be a safe and special place.' Then everything begins - a series of six stories unified around the idea that theater is indeed a special place. Just perhaps not quite safe, at least not in philosophical terms. This is Continuing the Conversation: An Evening of Short Plays Inspired by Current Events, Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre's mainstage reaction to some of the key themes in 2018 world news.
From that first quote on the wall, there is no mistaking the intention of Continuing the Conversation. This collection of six short plays wants to be immediate, relevant, and thought-provoking. Yet, in rushing to address the latest topics, each piece seems to settle more for reiteration than reinvention or specificity. These stories are so 'ripped from the headlines' that they can barely stand on their own.
To pick up a newspaper in the past year is to have read dozens of stories and opinions about sexual harassment, media fatigue, confederate icons, and racial tension. The prominence of these issues makes it challenging to address them creatively. Add the element of directness created by Continuing the Conversation and the challenge increases. How do you write a short issue play without setting up a soap box to preach to the masses? Or, is that the right way to go about this whole civic discourse thing? Is it finally time for a pulpit?
For a show can become so wrapped up in what it is saying that the story starts to suffer.
Richard Dresser's Nevertheless She Persisted feels very important, but the quickness with which it drudges up it's themes invites more confusion than probing questions.
Susanna Bradbeer's Downtown builds a powerfully subtle story on the backs of the stunning Noreen Farley and Beth Painter, but digs in to overstate its premise in the final moments.
Dania Ramos's Silent Aurora (a beautiful concept addressing the effect of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico) balances passionate dialogue and silent metaphor nicely, but weighs down it's characters in cliches.
Steve Harper's Special Counsel introduces a host of relationships directed with intriguing nuance by Jessica O'Hara-Baker. However, though thoroughly entertaining, they muddle the story more than enhance it.
Monumental, a brief musical by David Lee White (with music and lyrics from Kate Brennan), starts out boldly with overlapping dialogue used to juxtapose characters from two different decades. Yet, it fails to justify the use of singing in the narrative.
Lia Romeo's The Presentation is different. Though undeniably focused on current themes, Romeo dares to play around and create an unexpected story with both humor and heart. She also manages to escape unhindered by the heavy hand of necessary relevance.
In a sense, every play engages in some form of civic discourse. If not directly tied into current events, the themes will nevertheless be analyzed and critiqued according to what is happening in the here and now. This is what Continuing the Conversation seems to forget in its urgent desire to include the present. Dreamcatcher has valiantly created a setting where artists and the public alike can grapple with their feelings about current issues. (Every show this upcoming weekend is followed by a post-show talkback, so hurry over with all your questions.) Yet the question remains, do we opt for the soap box or the story? If good storytelling is the paramount achievement in theater, and I believe it is, then whichever we choose must not sacrifice subtlety. Sadly, more often than not, this show does.
Continuing the Conversation runs at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre this Friday, May 11 through Sunday, May 13. Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Talkbacks follow all shows in this final week.
Purchase tickets at www.dreamcatcherrep.org or by calling Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006. Performances are at the Oakes Center, located at 120 Morris Ave in Summit. Parking is available in the lot behind the theatre at 20 Ashwood Ave and at the Summit Recreation Center, 100 Morris Ave. The facility is wheelchair accessible. Assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired and advance large-print scripts are available for free by prior arrangement.
Photo Credit: Joseph Sbarro