BWW Review: SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION at World Stage Theatre Company
The mission of the new World Stage Theatre Company in Tulsa is as follows: "The World Stage Theatre Company gives actors and audiences access to the world by telling multicultural, inspirational, and transformational stories to connect our hearts and minds with people, places, and ideas." Their production of the play Six Degrees of Separation was a great choice in service of this mission, and an auspicious beginning to the company's inaugural season.
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare is about small people asking big questions, and the internal expanses that exist within our relationships to others. It was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, and was adapted into a star-studded film of the same name in 1993. As the title would suggest, the play explores human connection and the way imagination, race, and class inform those bonds with one another. The play's centerpiece of the reversible Kandinsky is almost too on the nose, and yet it still serves as a meaningful anchor for the play's maze of complex ideas. Indeed, the play contains a collage of artistic and literary references which simultaneously contribute to the conversations in the play and undermine themselves through self-parody. World Stage tackled this ambitious play with a truly impressive cast, who handled Guare's challenging material with both thoughtfulness and flair.
The play begins with rich people talking about rich people, and at first seems as though it might just be an extended mockery of upper-class New Yorkers who are plagued with a lack of self-awareness and a little white guilt. They communicate in halting quips and little absurdities: "Having a rich friend is like drowning and your friend makes lifeboats. But the friend gets very touchy if you say one word: life boat. Well, that's two words." However, the appearance of Paul marks a shift from the anti-naturalistic lampoonery to something more complex. In an incredible demonstration of natural aptitude for performance, Chaston Fox made his onstage debut as Paul, and his lack of distracting overzealousness was remarkable for a first-time actor. His subtle take on the character of Paul was bolstered by brazen performances from Kathryn Hartney and Sidney Flack as Ouisa and Flan Kittridge. The rest of the cast lived up to the high bar set by these leading players, operating as a lush ensemble that only rarely missed a note.
The most challenging part of World Stage's production was how difficult it was to determine the boundaries of fantasy, reality, and metatheatricality on stage. Surely, some of this blending was entirely intentional - and yet it would have been helpful to have a more clear guide to the moments in which characters transcend the fourth wall boundary and depart from the memories unfolding on stage. This could have taken the form of a more clear transition in tone or even a sound or lighting change. Still, this confusion contributed to the play's focus on authenticity and overarching cynicism about the possibility of maintaining a concrete identity.
In one of the most memorable parts of the play, Paul outlines his "thesis" (spoiler alert: he wrote no such thesis) on the power of imagination. He describes it as "the passport we create to take us into the real world" and "God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable." These two ideas capture Paul's understanding of performance as an essential component of identity, and identity as something that must be reinvented in order to survive. At the end of the play, both Paul's identity and fate are still uncertain, and Ouisa and Flan are left with the crushing weight of this uncertainty. And yet, with all the many questions left unanswered in the play, one thing is certain: there are great things to come for the World Stage Theatre Company in Tulsa.