Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: Dangerous Journalism

By Michael Block

Unless you are disconnected from news media, you’ve likely heard of the Rolling Stone article saga known as “A Rape on Campus.” An article was published in the magazine about a group sexual assault at the University of Virginia that the author and publisher later discredited and retracted. The article began a firestorm that opened up a brazen discussion on campus rape culture and the power of journalism in the age of social media. Written by Kim Davies, Abingdon Theatre Company in association with The Muse Project presents Stet, an exploration of a journalist’s journey of writing the perfect cover story.
Taking artistic liberties that are slightly skewed from the real events, Stet is a relevant saga about focusing on the media perspective as a journalist writes a risky cover story about an allegation that has the ability to shatter more lives. After her editor suggests she write a story about rape culture following the tale of a young woman named Ashley, Erika goes down the rabbit hole of truths and lies in order to gain the cover story. Developed by Kim Davies, Jocelyn Kuritsky, and Tony Speciale and written by Davies, Stet is a engaging ninety minute drama where the end game is clear but the pieces to complete the puzzle are the intrigue. Stet exemplifies the frustratingly broken systems. Whether it be at the university level, the power of journalism, or the wonder that is the 24-hour news cycle and social media, Stet takes the audience on a journey through the power of words. Perhaps simply due to the nature of the story, Davies’ storytelling was done through interviews and one-on-one interactions. It's a shame that the documentary style storytelling lacked character development for Erika, or any of the characters for that matter. There are glimpses of journey as certain characters disclose their past but when it comes to Erika, she seems to have a one-track mind that gets in her own way. Despite the structure, Davies’ colloquial language fits this play perfectly. Each character has a distinct and genuine voice. Davies’ does an impeccable job keeping the stakes heightened, even if you know the outcome. With little twists and turns, what keeps you on the edge of your seat is how the individuals react to the situations. Trying to decipher the truths allows you to feel as if you are Erika herself.
photo by Ben Strothmann
Erika is a tough as nails manipulative generalizing journalist. She is cold as ice. Erika has a job to do and will stop at nothing to succeed and get the cover. If her morals get in the way, she finds a way to suppress them. As our antagonist, Erika needs to have a semblance of likeability. You need to be able to know that whether she likes it or not, she has a mission. Unfortunately, Jocelyn Kuritsky’s characterization was so icy that by the time her past began to unravel, it was likely you painted her as conniving. And it didn’t go far enough to be a villain you love to hate. There was turmoil for Kuritsky’s Erika but we didn’t get to see enough of it on stage simply due to the nature of the piece. As the boss man with an agenda, Bruce McKenzie’s Phil was granted some character twists that he capitalized on. McKenzie played hardball with Erika yet was a viable confident. When Phil’s true beliefs were revealed, that’s when excitement came out. McKenzie brought a well-rounded performance. To reign in the piece, Davies didn’t go overboard with the amount of interviewees. We were given a trio of young voices that offered varying perspectives. From the vantage point of the accuser, Ashley, Lexi Lapp was smartly used sparingly. When she was present she gave Ashley a feeling of uneasiness. And that uneasiness allowed the audience to question the validity of her statements. As a frat boy trying to make a change, Jack Fellows embodied fraternity life without becoming a caricature. Playing the youthful university guidance aid, Dea Julien brought out something interesting in Christina. When talking about validity, Christina never seemed credible. But When Julien was gifted a stunning monologue, her vulnerability was onstage magic.
The moment with Christina on the floor with the recorder was on of director Tony Speciale’s defining moments. Speciale brought a fascinating use of fluidity and power levels with staging. He strategically had each character in a specific chair, placement in the room, or height to define their power in the scene. The play moved swiftly with Speciale’s strong vision and his gifted creative team. It all starts with Jo Winiarski’s scenic design. The super sleek monochromatic conference room with touches of wood and brick for color were reimagined to portray various locations. At first glance, it appeared that we were going to be stuck in a conference room for ninety minutes but Speciale, Winiarski, and the tag team of lighting designer Daisy Long and projection designer Katherine Freer made this multi-locational play come to life. Long’s looks fit the moods while Freer’s design was clean and intentional. In a world with ever-developing theatrical technology, Freer’s design elevated this production.
Stet is one of those plays that benefits from the “ripped from the headlines” formula but sometimes sticking too closely can be costly. Stet is a must see story that will fire you up in some capacity.