Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: What a Title and What a Show!

By Kaila M. Stokes 

Sometimes you have to ponder things you see before you can express what exactly happened to you that night. In a lot of ways when a play hits you so hard, it is just as hard to articulate just how amazing the show was. The Annotated History of the American Muskrat written by John Kuntz definitely makes you think, and think and think some more. It starts out simple enough. When you enter the theater all of the actors are on stage, eight of them asleep in their beds and 2 masked figures lurking around them and staring at you. Immediately the 4th wall is broken. Is the audience part of the show? You sit there for an uncomfortable amount of time before the show actually begins; this must be to set the mood of how out of sorts this show is going to make you. Bravely directed by Skylar Fox, this show is a huge undertaking. There are guns, music and sound transitions out the wazoo, the destruction of the set on multiple occasions and eight talented actors playing several roles each.
The premise is simple, but not simple. There are eight subjects allegedly being tested while they are asleep. In their dreams is where this play goes crazy! The audience is forced to question, America, gun control, race, religion, the past, the present and the audience member next to him even. The subjects begin their story by informing the audience about muskrats and throughout keep relating everything back to muskrats; muskrat love, muskrat movies, muskrat historical figures and so on. As the story continues each character not only plays themselves but goes through a series of characters throughout history that ultimately is dealing with similar issues as we are today.
A memorable scene was when a character was a radicalistic and watched her story unfold to the point where she issued an attack armed with machine guns for her cause. The director, Skylar Fox, did this beautifully. She had her up on the set in slow motion with strobe lights beating, music booming and feathers being fanned into the audience creating a psychedelic moment that broke the fourth wall. The audience felt on the actors side even though her actions were extreme, it united everyone in way society is unable to when someone does something terrible. Another memorable moment was actually done in black face by a black man. After discovering that he may be living in a false reality, one of the masked figures comes out and shoots him most likely for discovering this. As he laid there dying he muttered, “I can’t breathe.” This was spine-shuttering due to all of the controversy in the country currently.  There were many references that seemed a direct result of what is in the news even though this piece was written two years ago. Throughout the piece, each character at one point either says or is told that they can leave at any time. This eerie sentence resonated with the audience as Americans. Americans can leave, but choose to stay in this broken society and too often do nothing out of the fear of the unknown just like these eight test subjects clamoring to feel important and not helpless. Are they really test subjects?
photo by Cheno Pinter
The ensemble (Sam Bell-Gurwitz, Jared Bellot, Madeline Boles, Chris Fitzsimmons, Simon Henriques, Molly Jones, Anna Nemetz and Justin Phillips) was phenomenal. The sheer physical and mental exhaustion these actors went through was impressive. Each actor was fighting for the same or similar goal, which is different from the format of most theater. Their internal struggle did not necessarily lie with one another, but themselves and the world. It is clear from their bios that they come from established acting backgrounds and all have a promising future. No one actor was the star, which was both the message and the beauty of this unique twisted play.
Amidst all of the serious analogies and plot angles, one thing was clear, both the writer and director have a sense of humor. In a three-hour show like this with the heavy topics that it portrays, that was very much needed. So throw in a lip-synced song, a slow motion pillow fight, a guitar solo by a heart-throb – do it – make your audience laugh and cry! The set designer, Adam Wyron, is the real hero. The Annotated History of the American Muskrat has many places, spaces and eras that need to be represented. Adam Wyrion designed eight moveable beds that started out on stage. Throughout the show, those beds became desks, cars, doors, caskets, bars and more. They literally transformed the stage for every scene; it was part of the magic. The other hero is lighting designer, Christopher Annas-Lee. The lighting was so important in the transitions. First of all, there was never a full blackout except for intermissions and the ending, which keeps the audience attached to the piece. BRAVO! The lighting also brought the audience in and out of reality, whatever reality means for this show. But it did let everyone know whether you were in the test lab, in a side scene, in the present, past. Etc. The marriage between the lights and sound was well timed. Sound cues were just as important, there was almost always an overlay of music. The sound cues and lighting actually contributed to some of the humor of the show. It felt smooth and effortless to the audience, just like tech elements should be.
Overall, what is there is say about a nearly perfect production? The one thing that could be perfected is the fact that it was unclear if the characters knew each other in reality or just in their subconscious. But then again, that may have been the point.