Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: A Bohemian Rhapsody

Protesting is nothing new. But in a world of technology, the presence of social media can change the entire game. The fights for rights are given a face and a voice. With every share, someone learns of a battle. But not every battle can see the broad daylight. In Sarah Gancher's The Place We Built, a history that's slightly hidden from the mainstream takes center stage as a group of bohemians in Hungary fight to save their bar during a horrific transition in their country's democracy through a time of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism.
Holed up in a Budapest bar that serves as a refuge for all bohemian, gypsies, queers, and Jews, The Place We Built follows a maturing youth fighting to save their home, literally and figuratively. To put it bluntly, imagine a mash-up of some of the themes, situations, and morals of The Flea's 2015-2016 season and you get The Place We Built. The difference is, if you can get past the slight inconsistencies of dialect rules and documentary lighting rules, The Place We Built is near flawless. It's a politically charged docudrama that is raw, gritty, and purposely intense. Even with hints of character, Gancher's play is an integral plot driven piece. The characters are not nearly as important as the overall fight. It's a story about identity, heritage, and taking a stand. With an ending that is all too real, you have to be disappointed by the lack of victory, but that is the reality. Fights will fizzle as the ticking time shrinks and reality sets in. These characters wanted to do what they believed was right but being outnumbered trumps grandiose ideals. The message may feel unsatisfactory but not everyone can have a happy ending. With many decisions driven by love and exhilaration, The Place We Built watches a group of young Hungarians, lead by Aniko and Ben, who meet and take in like-minded bohemians to their Grandma parties and their ultimate creation, The Seagull, a bar and performance space. Gancher spatters the story nonlinearly with a documentary device. Sans the youngest squatters who’s presence barely gets explained, there’s a slow build up of character development but once each main character has their moment, The Place We Built takes flight. The running time may be long but if you’re engaged, it will fly by. With a backdrop based on truth and a plot that has inspiration from a real story, Gancher has to manage balance the two. With performance being a key part of the true story, infusing theatricality allowed The Place We Built movement. Between crude puppetry and cultural music, Gancher was able to evade feeling like a text book or Buzzfeed article. The necessary historical information was implemented properly, though The Place We Built could have used a dramaturgical insert to help set the scene and bring the audience into the performance prior to start.
photo by Hunter Canning
A great energy can lift a show. This ensemble was stellar at bringing the energy. The characters may not have been bound by blood but they were a family. This ensemble was the equivalent. There was an immense amount of trust and love. As a whole, this was a strong ensemble. But if you held a magnifying glass up to the individuals, there were some standouts, both for the good and the not as good. Firstly, recognition should be given to the musical talents including Brendan Dalton on guitar and drums, Ben Lorenz, who is a dead ringer of John Gallagher Jr. both physically and through performance, on violin, and Sonia Mena on accordion. The Place We Built could exist sans music but their presence made it that much better. Dalton was given a gift with the role of Mihaly. Not only was Mihaly a multi-layered character but he had one of the most fascinating story arcs. Dalton didn’t throw away his shot at crafting the strongest character within the bunch. His documentary solo introduction was one of the very last, so I suppose it’s true, Gancher saved the best for last. Utility player Brittany K. Allen continued to prove her worth as an incredible character actor. Though it’s not instantly clear due to story when a new character is introduced, Allen gave the play the comic relief it greatly desired. Gancher’s play isn’t necessarily strong in character so many of the featured players didn’t have much room to explore but there was something lost when it came to, possibly, the two most integral characters. Leta Renee-Alan as Aniko was a bit of a bore, though she finally brought the fireworks in her Act II eruption, and Tom Costello was not quite the hero Ben needed to be. You could easily blame Aniko and Ben for not being able to inspire the troops and it unfortunately reflected in Renee-Alan and Costello’s performances.
For those who may have seen Wolf in the River, the other production currently running at The Flea, you may recognize some elements from the set that is borrowed from that show. With a co-scenic design between Arnulfo Maldonado, the Wolf in the River scenic designer, and Feli Lamenca, you may have believed director Danya Taymor would be a slight disadvantage. The impressionistic design did work to create the grungy bar known as The Seagull. Taymor used all aspects of the space, smartly using the harsh corners sparingly. It’s likely you knew very little to nothing about the world of Gancher’s play yet Taymor did an impeccable job at bringing history to life in an compelling manner. You wanted to party with Taymor’s bohemians. Like the scenic design, The Place We Built borrowed lighting designer Masha Tsimring. For the most part, Tsimring’s design worked for this production with the grand exception of how the documentary light was used. Tsimring implemented a harsh diagonal white light that would then be interrupted by scene. Sometimes this light would be brought back if the speaker continued to narrate. Other times it was not. Consistency would have been nice, but it’s likely that the staging and shared space may be a cause. You can praise the musicians for their talent but you have to say thank you for the music to The Bengsons, the music consultants and arrangers. They offered the perfect mood and feel for this production.
No matter what happened in the end, you have to appreciate the fight the characters put up in The Place We Built. Their journey drove the play to success. Likewise, you have to appreciate the effort it took into building this play. Not all the pieces fit together, there were some occasional cracks. But no matter what, The Place We Built inspires.