Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: I'm Watching You Watch Me

We have become a society of talking points. No matter who you are or where you're from, there are hot button topics that have engulfed the conversation. From race to gender to sex, these themes are prevalent and tend to be a good source for an artistic conversation. But what happens if you try to put every single hot topic into one piece in order to answer the question of "who am I?"  You get I Am Not An Allegory (these are people i know), an overstuffed examination of today.
Set up like one of those Hollywood flicks with a giant line up of celebrities portraying thin archetypes, Libby Emmons’ I Am Not An Allegory is a series of intertwining snapshots that feature the social media generation attempting to have real conversations. Though not necessarily plot driven, Emmons’ play is socially conscience. While she introduces elements of plot, I Am Not An Allegory is a social commentary that gets sucked up in two different directions. There is so much potential within Emmons’ text but she needs to decide whether to focus on plot or let the snapshots thrive through necessary conversation. As the play develops, we learn that all the characters are somehow connected. And many of their reveals are sadly cheap or forcefully funny. With so many characters to track, Emmons has very little time to capture clean character arcs. We are given snippets that felt forced. The struggle is that in the current state of the script, it's not working as Emmons likely hopes. A massive restructure may be in order. If plot is desired, perhaps offering the piece as four individual stories that borrow the other characters would allow the characters to receive the care they want. If social themes are more important, simply eliminating character connection, and potentially a handful of characters, is the move. Trying to fulfill both options is holding back Emmons’ intent. The other decision that needs to be made is where exactly this play lives. Direct addresses are a natural way to define theatricality but by having the characters pause and reveal their purpose of being characters written by a writer not only breaks the fourth wall, it blasts it down with no hope of repair. And it's extremely jarring. It adds to the commentary of social topics but directly opposes the glimmers of plot. You have to wonder whether the pay off of acknowledging the theatrics and the final questions posed was worth alienating the audience.
photo by Cody Gallagher
Whether is was Emmons’ writing or the combination of writing and acting, there were certainly much stronger characters with interesting ideas than others. There were characters that fit more of the lead role who were more dynamic. Those who served as devices fell flat. As a whole, the ensemble seemed to just move through the motions. It was not a strong, cohesive company. But that may be due to the characters’ lack of story. Wherever the play sits on the spectrum, Emmons trio of male characters were quite despicable human beings. Dan alone will make you cringe. Played by Mateo D’Amato, Dan is a misogynistic monster. There are certainly real people like him but man, on stage, Dan had no redeeming qualities. D'Amato was charming and did all he could to find substance in the character. And then there is Severin, played by Conor Daniel Bartam. Everyone has their sexual deviations but was the one Emmons chose really necessary for this piece? It felt like it served only for shock value reaction rather than for character. It literally could have been anything else and it would have served the same purpose for Sev and Ames story. The women of I Am Not an Allegory, on the other hand, had more hope in garnering sympathy. By far the most interesting character, played by the strongest actress, was baby momma Jess. Portrayed by Lindsay Perry, Jess was a little bit quirky but had a clear objective: to take care of her baby no matter the cost. Perry was able to joke her way through Jess’ vegetable webcam gig and still make you understand why she was doing it. Perry’s impeccable charisma and bright smile gave optimism to Jess. Perry, along with Natalya Krimgold’s Ames, managed to bring something out of the characters. When you have keen performers, those who don’t quite live up to the expectancies can tear down the promise. Sadly, there were some reciters in this cast. Bartram and Masonya Berry, as perhaps the world’s worst dance teacher Danesha, didn’t quite connect with the material or their scene partners.
There are undoubtedly right and wrong decisions when it comes to direction but a strong director will make a choice and stick to it. With Libby Emmons’ script already being all over the map, director Ali Ayala needed to pick a direction to take it and run with it. Ayala offered glimmers of theatricality by exploring the voyeuristic nature of the text. She would occasionally keep certain players on stage to watch the action, knowing that the character couldn’t actually see. It played nicely into the voyeurism in the final beat. That being said, whenever Ayala abandoned this conceit, it hurt her vision. Ayala tried to incorporate swift transitions in between scenes, often using those on stage to propel the action, but her use of the stage could have been stronger. Under St. Marks is a special space. It’s tight, especially for this size cast, but by isolating locations, it forced the actors to feel enclosed. Ayala should be commended though for her brilliant use of the bar area. If it’s there, utilize it! When the cult classic “Smash” invaded our televisions a few years back, there was often commentary on the problematic device of the characters acknowledging the grandeur of a performance that was in fact, not so good. In I Am Not an Allegory, we were granted the opportunity to witness Danesha and her dancing divas. While none of the characters commented on the content, from an audience perspective, seeing what we saw, those characters should ask a refund and demand their money back.
I Am Not an Allegory could be something so good and so necessary but it needs to go back to the drawing board. Libby Emmons has some fascinating things to say but sometimes the execution of how they’re said will give weight to their meaning. Unfortunately, with how this play is presented, it doesn’t come off so well. I Am Not an Allegory is driven by social commentary. It’s meant to make you uncomfortable. Just be thankful that the lights weren’t brought up on the audience in the final scene.