BWW Review: Ike Holter's SENDER at Denizen Theatre Sends Up Millennials
Denizen Theatre, a one-year-old jewel of a black-box performance space in New Paltz (N.Y,), prides itself on staging plays with a conscience.
The truths that confront us in Denizen material can be painful, but thank goodness they are not painfully obvious in the writing or acting. Denizen's mission is to stimulate rather than enervate.
That commitment to avant-gardism and to humanism -- not to be taken lightly in today's slop sink of mobile-disposable-digital-folderol (the kind of cadenced phrasing you might hear in this play) -- is readily apparent in award-winning playwright Ike Holter's Sender, at Denizen through Oct. 27.
We are in the company of four Millennial denizens of Chicago hipster culture...
There's enigmatic Lynx (Ben Williamson), who slinks around as the center of gravity despite being gravitas-deficient; troubled Tess (Veronica Cooper), his ex-girlfriend with a drinking issue whose current career is dog-walker; jumpy Jordan (Maurice Chinnery), looking for an escape from the ball-and-chain of humdrum existence, and ambivalent father of Cassandra's unborn child; clear-eyed, no-nonsense Cassandra (Samantha Jane Williams), forever trying to keep the others on the straight and narrow, and to keep Lynx away from everyone.
They talk over, under, around, and jab at each other, just like real people do.
HIP-HOP MOSH PIT OF PATOIS
Mr. Holter is one of those dramatists with a golden ear for the visceral, staccato language of the street, a post-modern verancular that's stately and slang at the same time.
It takes a little bit to acclimate your ear to his characters' hip-hop mosh pit of patois, so paying rapt attention to their verbal sparring is imperative -- and fun, even if you're decades removed from their generational telegraphy.
Words, emotions and intentions feverishly ricochet around the room--or across the rooftop, where a good portion of the action takes place, on an upper level of the versatile set.
Although Ike Holter dives headlong into what makes Millennials tick, and tock -- and what makes them tremble with abstract anxiety about almost everything -- he is not so much focused on exploring their inner lives as he is on using them to amplify what's wrong that they need to right.
Things are messy for our fine, fettered friends in Sender, a reminder that, even for the most grounded among us, life is messy by default, whether or not it's our fault.
Mr. Holter is a peer of his characters -- and one or more of them presumably represents him at some stage of his still-young life -- but don't expect much sympathy from him if you're anything like the Millennials portrayed here. This playwright is positively pugilistic in pulling no punches as he lays out wusup with America's latest rendition of "The Lost Generation."
Here's a tasting menu for your perusal: digital distraction, student loans, career misdirection, addictions, obsession with self, selfies and smoothies, disillusionment with rampant materialism, wanderlust, threesomes. They're all packed in here, in a sobering, unambiguous way that bellows, "Suck it up, get your act together, and grow the "F" up already."
NEITHER DEAD NOR FORGOTTEN
Mr. Holt's slender plot has Lynx suddenly materializing after spending a full year in absentia, presumed dead by his friends, his admirers, and his lovers (Tess and Jordan both). The circumstantial evidence pointed to his demise in a WIsconsin lake. But, despite being mourned by these three, and many more, as forever gone, this hep cat has landed on his feet. Now he's back, and fancies himself a pied (if also pie-eyed) piper who's going to spirit away his mini-cohort to a simpler existence, far from the madding grid.
Jordan's thankful: this is his best (and bed) bud. Tess is rueful: he left without a trace, or a note; she's once burned, twice shy. Cass is truthful: she wants him to leave as fast as he came, so Jordan can come home for good.
That's more than enough plot for Ike Holter to make the most of, as he stylishly paints in lurid colors these Millennials' plodding pace toward responsible life choices.
FANTASTICAL TALES OF BEING GRID-FREE
Played with rambunctious charm and guile by Mr. Williamson (co-artistic director of Denizen), Lynx regales Tess and Jordan with fairly fantastical tales of his exploits while he was grid-free ("I built a house!").
Since Mr. Holter likes to meld the literal with the symbolic, I began to wonder whether Lynx is of this earth or a shared doppelganger for the others, a surrogate summoned to confront their own desires and fears and confusion about which direction their life should lead.
It's a testament to Ben Williamson's command of his craft that he smoothly invested Lynx with an ephemeral quality that makes you question, "Is this guy real, or surreal?"
ZEN-LIKE INNER CALM
I found Veronica Cooper's interpretation of the pensive, mostly sedentary Tess mesmerizing and cannily measured, quietly holding her own playing opposite Mr. Williamson's lithe, cat-like mania. She is a disarmingly naturalistic actor who exudes a Zen-like inner calm always under control no matter what Tess is saying or doing. It makes for a compellingly layered portrayal of tightly focused, impatient aimlessness.
Samantha Jane Williams and Maurice Chinnery both are excellent as the married couple whose fraught relationship would be mutually destructive were it not for Jordan's "weak" character, as Lynx puts it, and Cassandra's resilient empathy. Both actors turn in impressive work, which speaks well of their alma mater, the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, a kind of feeder program for Denizen.
That mutual affinity between theater and campus extends in this production to director Martine Kei Green-Rogers, an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz. Working within a compact, bi-level set -- smartly architected by scenic designer Crystal Vazquez -- Ms. Green-Rogers makes effective use of three distinct playing areas, topped by that rooftop aerie where the most high-pitched exhanges occur.
And if you're wondering what the title of Mr. Holter's play means, so was I. Right before posting this review, in fact, I still had no idea. I didn't come across it in Denizen's press materials. Then, thinking that maybe it's part of the hipster patois Mr. Holter knows so well, I decided to check out the Urban Dictionary. My hunch paid off.
Here's how it defines "sender"... "A person who doesn't take anyone's s**t and just does as he/she pleases, no matter the circumstances or the outcome." If that's the case, Mr. Holter could as easily titled his work Lynx, but where's the mystique in that--or the poetry. If he made things that simple, you might forget for a moment that life is anything but simple. Like Lynx, it's gloriously messy and unknowable.
Sender runs through Oct. 27 on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Regular tickets are available for $28, $24 for seniors, and $15 for those under 30; $5 student tickets are available for every show.