Monday, April 17, 2017

Excellent Production (by The Horse in Motion) Can’t Overcome Script Flaws

Wellesley Girl (Colby Wood)
Wellesley Girl
The Horse in Motion
(at 18th & Union)
Through April 29, 2017

The Horse in Motion is probably a small theater company you have never or rarely heard of. It was started as a collective of UW theater grads a few years back and has produced ensemble-created shows in particular. Their mission is to “expand the traditional conception of theatre.” If you attended their staging of Attempts on Her Life at the University Heights Center, that was a promising debut.

Sometimes, though, ya just have to do a “regular” kind of theatrical production. Their choice, now on stage, is a brand new play (2016) by Brendan Pelsue, who has a very solid East Coast playwrighting background. He was brought out by the company to work on tweaks to his new play, Wellesley Girl.

I’m going to flip my usual pattern of writing “about the show” and then “about the production” for this review, and I’m going to use first-person much more than usual. Sometimes, I see productions that are well done, but the play is perhaps not as good as the production. That’s the case here. This production is excellent!

Bobbin Ramsay is a keen-eyed director who continues to show she really knows how to manage actors and has a great theatrical sense. She has cast solid actors from the ensemble and added others who also perform to a high degree. The scenic design by talented Brandon Estrella impresses in a small space like 18th&Union. The lights (by Ryan Dunn) and sound (by Alex Potter) do a great job, as well.

I have to call out Ms. Sunam Ellis, who joins the company for the first time. She has recently been seen onstage in various and different productions. Every time I see her, I find more of her depth and ability, and she presents her craft as if it were “nothing” and no effort at all. Yet, she brings nuance and understanding to every roll. Here, her naturalism is so believable that she almost overcomes a difficult-to-like or understand character! I look forward to many more opportunities to watch her act.

At times, when a production is very good, the entire play is elevated. A script is only real when it is animated, essentially, anyway. But in this case, the production cannot overcome the shortcomings of the script.

I can see why the company might have been drawn to the idea of the script. It describes a political colony where there are only several hundred people, so every adult is part of the “Congress” except one who represents the Supreme Court. The holy grail of playwriting these days is to try your hand at something that feels like it reflects on these political times.

However, the residents are so faithful to the old structure of government that they have to slavishy copy it – and only the federal government at that, not even a moment of state or municipality rule. That’s a bit precious for 400-something adults.

The story is based in the future. The Far Far Future: 2465. That’s 450 years from now. I don’t know about you, but my try at thinking what life would be like that far in the future seems fruitless. The play is about the United States after a devastating apocalyptical set of events – BUT the United States still exists! Frankly, while we are perhaps on the brink of finding out if we can survive president #45, getting to 450 years later and having this “experiment” still exist already seems questionable.

Other aspects, just of that decision to make it 450+ years from now, mean that the idea that there has been zero technological change, even if there was an apocalypse, is therefore unbelievable. People seem to be living as though it were 1950. And even science has taken an almost unbelievable pause.

Except. Except for one very sentient robot. A “husband robot” (who is very well played by Nic Morden). His presence, electricity, and the use of microphones is about the only suggestion of remaining technology.

We’re told that these characters live in a walled segment of four towns in what used to be Massachusetts, near Wellesley. They believe they are the entire United States. We’re told that algae blooms poisoned the water – everywhere – and so people had to wall themselves in to filter the water and keep everyone from being poisoned.

And there is a crisis: Outside the walls is a contingent of they-don’t-know-what kind of gathering. It is large, it seems potentially threatening, and they can tell that these folks outside have mobile transportation filter devices, so they know how to stay alive and not be poisoned. The big argument is whether they should act as if the outsiders are a threat or send an emissary to ask why they’re there. That’s kind of a no brainer. One can actually do both.

There’s a lot of talk about the power of the vote. Ellis plays a woman whose husband is so conflicted with presented choices that he doesn’t vote. She is also someone who is against the “establishment” idea of abandoning their settlement and escaping into the unknown. Why? Well, when she was a tiny girl, her family left. It was a Wellesley contingent, hence the title. She is the Wellesley girl. There was an algal bloom and terrible consequences.  

With little to amp up the non-stark choices before them, this wife is so scared to leave the walls that she is committed to killing her sons, as well. So, the rest of the play revolves around a “will they or won’t they” leave the walls or kill children. It depends on the vote.

I am not interested in slamming this writer’s attempt at using theater to comment on politics. I think, though, that I’ve pointed out some choices that take him far, far away from a successful concept upon which to make his points. If he chose to write about a future 25 or 50 years from now that is based on some kind of modified nuclear devastation that has upended our grids and caused this fragmentation of core living spaces, that might be as useful as 450 years from now is not.

In this construct, the slavish adherence to a federal model is illogical for a small group of people. Voting is massively important in smaller groups and, yes, one or two people can make a huge difference in that outcome. This choice makes their society one to scoff at, instead.

Lastly, the danger has to be real, inescapable, and known to provoke a parent to want to kill her children. Or she has to be insane (trapped and insanely jealous and powerless like Medea, or really incapable of understanding reality). None of which is present in this script. Not to mention that there is no real reason to include such an issue in a play about politics.

I commend the company and look forward to their next outing. I look forward, as well, to you going to see the production and letting me know what you thought.

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