In an early scene of Salesmen, two members of the ensemble sit down and seem to be preparing for some kind of audition. One is studying his notebook while the other completes a series of physical exercises, including stretches and vocal warm-ups.
This experimental play as a whole appears to be a series of theatrical exercises, united by themes of masculinity and questions about truth in art. The scenes, largely differentiated from each other by changes in the lush sound design by Eben Hoffer and John Kurzynowski and greatly effective lighting by Jonathan Cottle, feel like the actors must complete tasks handed down to them from a Stanislavski-like trainer: re-enact masculine portrayals from famous films! act out a memory with your father! find the physical attributes of anger!
The scenes are fragmented, as is the dialogue. Word associations get jumbled up with borrowed phrases and broken sentences that have only abstract meaning or are drowned out by the musical score. In fact, about half of the dialogue is mute. Instead, the actors largely express their emotional shifts through their physicality. The ensemble has really nailed down the expressive power of something as simple as posture, like a straight, confident back inverting itself into a timid slouch.
A helpful introductory note in the playbill notifies the audiences that the roots of this play are in meditations on the avant-garde acting methods of mid-century America. These focused on the psychological aspects of acting with the hopes of substituting melodrama for realism. Marlon Brando, the undisputed king of the era’s ‘real’ acting, hovers over certain scenes in Salesmen like a scrunched-up-faced guardian angel.
The ensemble of actors gathered for this piece is a talented, intuitive, and reflective group of rising performers. I wished they were given a little more individual attention, since they largely acted as a chaotic non-unified group, each actor presenting his bit entirely separate from and oblivious of the other actors. Only the opening narrator (Nick Smerkanich) is individualized from the other seven actors. He is a mysterious presence in the play, since he seems both confused and moved by what he presents. At times he participates in the scenes, but in other scenes, he sits or stands stiffly to the side, intensely observing with a flyswatter in hand.
Veering from any sort of narrative structure, Salesmen works mostly on a subjective level. Watching the actors work through the their scenes often feels like an acting exercise itself, forcing memories or connections to surface on a deeply emotional or psychological level. I spent part of my walk home thinking about which of my father’s traits I’d chose to act out if I were part of the ensemble. However, I felt like the play as a whole never really transcended its exercise functionality or provided a coherent vision of its themes. This frenzied, fragmented play is entertaining and provocative, but hardly illuminating.