BWW Review: FSU's Sensational SEMINAR
Opening a fall season with a small cast, living-room drama may be unusual. Having the one act focus on the artistic integrity of words, even further into the unexpected. With all things considered, director Cameron Jackson didn't make just an 'unusual' or 'unexpected' show to kick off Florida State University's 2016-2017 season. The best word to describe Seminar is nuanced. From minor ticks in each captivating performer, through the detailed prop work in set design, back down to the brief transitory seconds we catch each actor in- Seminar is a work of detailed brilliance.
Seminar is a recent play by Theresa Rebeck, which enjoyed a brief run on Broadway a few years back starring the late Alan Rickman. The 2011 drama follows the brutal seminar administered by editor Leonard, through the perspective of his students. As Leonard's encroaching notes and methods devour their well-being, the characters moves towards a more raw truth.
The School of Theatre at Florida State puts on its best productions when it falls onto the shoulders of the performers, especially a bare-bones script such as Seminar. The two primary students, Kate and Martin, are played by the flawless Antonina Vargas and Cecil Jennings, respectively. FSU alum R. Ward Duffy returns to the Conradi stage to portray the overbearing Leonard, a role he takes on with gusto.
Seminar is a delicate balance, one Jackson has worked to a fine point. The show begins with all four actors on-stage, and a majority of the show includes the lot. Some actors have scenes where they won't even barely speak (Daniel Deist, playing the phonie Douglas, has extensive down-time), but their performances give four separate stories from the first lights up until the show's finish. In the way each actor embodies the passion and struggles of their character, it becomes a challenge of which story you want to see play out. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes (no intermission), Seminar gives the small cast a short amount of time to offer that.
Antonina Vargas is plainly honest, a gripping performance of a modern woman lost. There's an air of ease, truthful performance from each breath Vargas takes that gives the show a figure-head to follow. The juxtaposition of her planned, disciplined life against Leonard's throw sparks high in her emotional quips with Duffy, unforgettable scenes. While her character represents the struggle of feminism, the script seems to ironically end on an opposite note, something Vargas and Jackson can't control. Rebeck may have stumbled, but Jackson catches the fall.
On the opposing end, Jennings' Martin is a visual representation of every English major's imagined reflection. Although at first almost caricature-ish, Martin quickly becomes the basis of the caricature. Jennings is riotous in his angsty philosophical rants against Kerouac and post-modernism, an embodiment of every sad teaching assistant stuck in every English department basement. To butt heads with Martin, Duffy embodies the soul of modernism, beat authors who caved into ego. Duffy breathes an original life into Leonard, completely unlike the Rickman portrayal; Duffy's Leonard is a chaotic rock-star, burning bridges as he races across them. It becomes more and more engaging to hear his tales of Somalian war-lords, who he's sleeping with, and what he eulogizes on writing- Duffy makes Leonard a deluded god instead of a miserable failure.
Equally strong are Skye Kim and Daniel Deist, as Izzy and Douglas. The supporting characters provide an axis for characters to crash into each other, Douglas infuriating Martin while Izzy frustrates Kate. Watching Deist and Kim behind every screaming match or monologue becomes a humorous escape from the indulgent literary themes, Deist having exceptionally adept muted humor.
While Genny Wynn's very minimalistic lighting design is strong (heightening the most tense final scenes with minor changes), its Tamara Honesty's scenic design that toys most with atmospheric experience. Without spoiling too much of the visuals, Honesty's design from one scene to the next showcases the most dramatic juxtapositions between the internal worlds of the characters, embodying their lifestyle and mindset through simple, detailed set. Alongside prop master Rachel Wier, Honesty has created a terrific stage for the characters to attack each other in.
The School of Theatre has entered it forty third year with an unorthodox production, one that exceeds expectations. On the strength of the actors alone, the production gives a nuanced, truthful look into the lives of young artists understanding how to function, create, and empathize. Whether a performer, English student, or a medical student, you will learn about the art of creation through the astonishingly talented cast Seminar shows.
Seminar plays at the Augusta Conradi Theatre October 7-16th, tickets are available online or at the door.