here arts center

Courtship Totally Sucks in ‘You On The Moors Now’

In Pride and Prejudice, the indignant and self-sufficient Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal, believing him to be the cause of her sister’s failed romance with his friend Bingley. Overwhelmed with the confusion of her existing relationships, she departs for London with her aunt and uncle and slowly learns the truth about Darcy’s benevolent nature, as well as how to temper her severe perceptions with optimistic prudence.

Lizzie, as well as many of her fellow 19th century heroines, must first encounter what she doesn’t want and/or err in her decision-making in order to ultimately make the right decision for her future. Jane Eyre runs from Rochester and finds a new life and new identity on the tumultuous moors, returning to Rochester some time later under vastly different circumstances and with new self-knowledge. Jo March (Little Women) rejects the proposal of her childhood friend Laurie, a seemingly perfect fit for her, and only finds happiness with Professor Bhaer after much anxiety and confusion. Cathy (Wuthering Heights) refuses to marry the wild, passionate Heathcliff, choosing instead the mild, bourgeois Edgar.

Lauren Swan-Potras (Jo), Anastasia Olowin (Cathy), Kelly Rogers (Lizzy), Sam Corbin (Jane) Photo by Suzi Sadler
Lauren Swan-Potras (Jo), Anastasia Olowin (Cathy), Kelly Rogers (Lizzy), Sam Corbin (Jane)
Photo by Suzi Sadler

It’s in this tumultuous haze between disillusionment and satisfaction that Jaclyn Backhaus’s You On The Moors Now places us. Performed by the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble at HERE Arts Center and directed by TRE founder John Kurzynowski, the play begins with a familiar, modern retelling of these classic literary denials. One by one, these young women reject their marriage proposals, mixing contemporary and humorous language with quotes from the original text. Laurie, for example, opts for less romantic efforts to get Jo’s attention: “So here’s the thing, bitch!” then moving into a back-and-forth chorus of “You shut up!” with Jo. The scenes are witty and endearing, swapping (what some might call) rigid, antiquated dialogue for an expressive, impulsive, and youthful meltdown of sorts. The rejections aren’t always the best decisions and the women are fickle and hot-headed with their emotions. You On The Moors Now isn’t so much about women escaping the confining conditions of their love lives but rather about the seemingly never-ending errors and distractions on the road to happiness.

After a strong first half, the second begins to falter. The play departs drastically from the original texts. Set and time no longer exist for the characters– they are unhinged from the 19th century. The women run away from their homes and unite on the moors, forming a coalition to protect their independence. They avoid their regrets and pursue other life goals, such as careers in space exploration and marketing. If we thought that Lizzie and Jane’s choices weren’t difficult enough, imagine if their Victorian limitations disappeared. Throw professional aspirations and other freedoms not previously granted to these women into the mix. Let them figure out which of their thoughts and emotions are most genuine in a contemporary culture saturated with images of other people’s successes and failures. The modern romantic landscape is much like getting lost on the moors.

The men desperately try to retrieve the four women, employing other male literary characters like Edgar, St.John, and Jo’s mother to track them down. The plot loses sight of it focus and begins to sound more like fan fiction (bad fan fiction at that) than a coherent narrative. It’s not that departure from the original texts is not invited. And likewise, I understood the frenzied, rushed nature of the play’s middle act to represent the noncommittal confusion and anxiety of the characters’ emotional lives.  Theoretically, the play’s structure and content work so intuitively together– I just wished the second half’s script had something more unique and less cumbersome to say. My dissatisfaction with the direction of the play culminated in the final act, a long scene in which the actors sit in a single line on stage and perform what is essentially a table-reading of the resolution. Leather-bound book in hand, Cathy acts as narrator, reading aloud several pages of quite shallow fiction detailing the characters’ reunion.

Harlan Alford (Heathcliff), Nathaniel Basch-Gould (Laurie), Preston Martin (Darcy), Jon Riddleberger (Rochester) Photo by Suzi Sadler
Harlan Alford (Heathcliff), Nathaniel Basch-Gould (Laurie), Preston Martin (Darcy), Jon Riddleberger (Rochester) Photo by Suzi Sadler

You On The Moors Now is an insightful meditation on living with the uncertainty of our actions and the anxiety of missed love. With a tighter, more cohesive second half, I can see Backhaus’s play become a powerful and nuanced piece.

You On The Moors Now plays at HERE Arts through February 28. Tickets Here.

“The Cloud” @ HERE Arts Center

In a post-internet world, technology has completely usurped the way we communicate: most people who’ll know what I think of the following play will find out through this blog, Facebook/Twitter, and the occasional text. Only a handful of others will know what I’ve said about the production in person. And if I were to really examine my communication with that handful of people I actually speak to on a regular basis, how much of it has been superseded by laptops and smartphones?

That’s the hook of The Cloud, a short-but-oh-so-sweet comedy from Slant Theatre Project that examines how relationships flourish–and flounder–in this brave new digital world. The couple put to the test: Chris (Teddy Bergman) and Katie (Makela Feely-Lehmann), two New Yorkers who text each other as much as they speak face-to-face. Chris is a set designer who has just gotten a gig teaching at an out-of-town college. Katie is a shrewd app developer whose latest project is a pay-to-play social network where users post their nudes–just so they can see everyone else’s. They converse throughout the opening scene in bursts of both “real dialogue” and text messages, a challenge that director Wes Grantom handles with ease, as the actors still look at each other, and not just their phones. This choice in direction lends a credibility and inner life to their text exchanges. The foils to Chris and Katie are Greg, Katie’s philandering ex-boyfriend and personal trainer to Sandy, a costume designer who teaches at the same school as Chris. Of course, all four characters (and their various mobile devices) collide, with humorous results.

A dramatic rendering of texting your ex.

The Cloud could have easily been a dull rom-com with more techie style than substance. Happily, this was not the case, as Matt Moses’ clever dialogue has real heart behind the punchlines. All four characters have authentic histories, desires, and flaws, no matter the medium they express them. My favorite had to be Greg, who is notorious for his dude-bro womanizing ways, but is an aging Lothario searching for something more significant. The allusion to Shakespeare in The Cloud also lends to its complexity. As Chris and Sandy prepare for a regional production of As You Like It, there is a discussion of whether this production should have realistic, green trees or a darker forest that represents the characters’ difficulties. Instead of a forest, The Cloud has 4G networks and messaging apps that its characters must navigate through. But neither the Forest of Arden nor a messaging app can totally decide our fate. It’s still up to us to figure out how to make that connection.


For more information on The Cloud, check out Slant Theatre Project’s website:

Obedient Steel at HERE Arts Center

What happens when the nation’s top scientists are forced to lead ordinary lives after a  botched experiment? In Obedient Steel, a new play from the Tugboat Collective presented at the HERE Arts Center, we trace the downfall of four brilliant young physicists. When we first encounter them, they are beginning their work at a 1950’s era secret lab compound, where they have been charged with the task of creating the world’s most powerful weapon for the U.S. government. About half of the show if devoted to the scientists’ creative, professional, and romantic lives at the compound. It feels a bit like being at a top-secret space camp for adults instead of the restrictive, high-stakes environment we would expect, and that’s part of the reason why the scientists are barred from ever working for the government again after a nuclear test goes awry.

Photo by Suzi Sadler
Photo by Suzi Sadler

But it’s not all bad, eh? I mean, who in the 1950’s doesn’t want a steady job, like teaching high school or selling life insurance, with a beautiful wife in tow and a well-kept suburban home? (Full disclosure, that was my dream life until like, three years ago) Years pass steadily and the scientists find themselves desperate to break away from their new lives.

In a way, Obedient Steel mirrors a lot of the issues facing the current generation as they enter a staggering workforce. The lab compound in the play is a fun, collaborative, learning environment where the researchers do what they’re best at and excel at it. It not only protects government secrets, it protects the men and women in it from the outer world. It’s not unlike a good ol’fashioned colleges experience. Life outside of these institutions can often feel aimless, mundane, and frivolous, particularly for these brilliant minds.

The acting is most engaging in the show’s first half. A great deal of the emotional resonance in the play’s second half comes from some clever stagework that enables us to never  lose focus on the characters’ despair. Since the staging and the excellent dialogue work in tandem so well, I felt like the second act could have been shorter– some scenes felt repetitious or dragged out.  I also wish that the two halves weren’t so starkly different from each other. These scientists are working on the most deadly weapon of all time, for goodness sake, and there is never a portentous tone in the first act nor discussion of the project’s moral repercussions. Similarly, maybe a little humor in the second half could break up some of the reiterating sadness. There are also frequent moments when the characters speak directly to audience members, sometimes handing them props to hold on to or asking for quick yes/no responses. This lightened the mood significantly in the first act, though these moments were too bunched up in the play’s openings scenes. Perhaps spreading moments like these throughout the play would help create a more consistent mood.

Obedient Steel remains, however, a thoughtful piece about what happens when your life is just starting and you’ve already reached your peak. The cast truly bring the characters’ journeys to realistic fruition with the help of some excellent staging and a versatile script. Tickets are available at through November 24!

Salesmen at HERE Arts Center

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.

The Cast of SALESMAN - 2
The Cast of Salesmen

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.


Salesmen runs through November 9 at HERE Arts Center. Tickets here.

Mediums at Work at The Orpheus Variations

There was a point in The Orpheus Variations’s short 45-minute progress where I thought to myself, I should really just drop everything and join an experimental theater company. It’s so exciting to see a production whose mission is so purposeful and whose work is not only unique, but also innovatively reflective on the future of the performing arts.

Robert Kitchens & Amanda Dieli in The Orpheus Variations - Photos by Mitch Dean
Robert Kitchens & Amanda Dieli in The Orpheus Variations – Photos by Mitch Dean

Orpheus is not so much a story as a conglomeration of reflections on love, relationships, loss, and memory. While the title does invoke the Greek myth of Orpheus, the famed musician who travels to the Underworld after his wife Eurydice dies on the day of their wedding, the myth’s presence in the play is at most symbolic. The script, which is more like a two-person lyrical ballad/ narrative voiceover, is recited stage left by ensemble members while ‘Orpheus’ and ‘Eurydice’ act out their fragmented roles without speech.

While this is happening, two other ensemble members each film the actors with hand-held video recorders. This live video feed is controlled by a feed technician and is projected onto a screen behind the actors so that the audience watches the film as it being produced. What is most striking about the simultaneous live performance/video capture is the sharp dissonances between the two. The first dissonance is that fact that inherent in the two different mediums is the concept of time. In film, we take for granted that what is being filmed HAS been filmed. The performances in the film are in the past and have been reproduced so that we can watch them at our convenience. Film’s time is also cognitively different for the film’s cast and crew. They may do scenes out of order; they may have repetitive takes that can them be edited on or edited out; they may take as much time needed to set up a costume or a location. The sequence and length of scenes in a film has no relationship to the actual time taken to produce. (I just watched an interview with Gene Wilder– my new old Hollywood crush– where he states that he felt much  more liberated on a film set than on a stage precisely because he could be free to experiment in each take with the knowledge that it could be re-done, edited out, or re-scripted). Stage work, on the other hand, produces a real-time representation of the work needed to create a story. We know that in a two-hour play, the cast and crew will be working for those two hours in sequence, even if the plot’s events constitute more than a two-hour span. What you see is what you get.

In Orpheus, what you see is what you get… and then some. The Deconstructive Theatre Project, the aforementioned theater troupe I’d impulsively join, makes deconstruction about WAY more than the transparency of process (in the Brechtian vein of breaking the fourth wall, making sets and costumes look fabricated and unrealistic, etc.). Here, we actually see the lie that the process produces– the film projected behind us. This is another dissonance of the process. We see the actors using makeshift tools (a piece of wallpaper, a miniature house, a train set, a spray can, a branch, a clear container of sand, etc.) to produce a very pretty realistic film. Even though we see that ‘Eurydice’ only has her feet in a fishtank, the film shows her clearly drowning. Even though we see the hands of an Orpheus double preparing tea while the real Orpheus prepares for his next scene, the film makes the transition seamless.

The ensemble’s energetic, yet quite mechanical, live production of a film is all for the sake of process mirroring content. Here’s where things get a bit trippy. Artistic Director Adam Thompson explained in the company talk back how his interest in the neuroscience of memory was integrated into the structure of the play. For one thing, the part of the brain that recalls memories is the same part of the brain used in our imaginative thinking. As has been shown time and again in psychological studies, memories are incredibly fickle things, easily-influenced by our emotional states, our biases, our environments, our imaginations, etc. Memory is likewise a construction of different sensory intake, all located in different parts of the brain.

For the DTP, the film projection is Orpheus’s constructed memory. Meanwhile, the audience is privy to the simultaneous construction of the memory through the actors live performance. We can see exactly how the symbolic memory effectively misrepresents the actual process. It lies to us. The company’s busy efforts to set up the scenes for these memories mimic the way that we, both biologically and emotionally, busily struggle to reproduce (and also reconstruct) our memories.

Awesome stuff, huh?

Now, getting back to the lovers, I definitely think that the play can continue to develop its themes through the couple’s relationship as the company intends to extend it. While the relationship between lying and memory is extraordinarily effective in the process of the play, do we have any reason to doubt Orpheus’s recollections? Might the content and form become even more unified had there been planted in the audience’s mind certain seeds of doubt as to how reliable our narrators’ accounts are? It doesn’t need to be overt– the script’s nuanced, poetic language is a perfect accompaniment to the business of the stage. It makes a completed piece that resonates both on an emotional and intellectual level. I’m very interested to see how DTP continues to work in its multimedia approach and where they decide to take both Orpheus and their mission.

The Orpheus Variations is being presented this weekend only (through June 30) at the HERE Arts Center by the Deconstructive Theatre Project.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: