A Review of “Masses and Man” Performed by TUPS

Trinity Theatre’s “Masses and Man” balances modernist quirks with true feeling.

    As I sit down, I notice the steady stream of people pouring into the Cafe Theater. Mellow chatter ensues, and I stretch out my legs. I showed up 15 minutes early to the performance and figure I would relax. Suddenly, after most settle in their seats, someone enters the room, dressed all in black, and sits among the audience. She has an eerie yet intent look about her, mindful of the surrounding crowd yet focusing on the stage. As I continue to stare, the lights suddenly go off, her silhouette fading into the surrounding darkness. New lights leap up before me. Two women, dressed similarly in that uncanny black attire, appear on stage. After an impassioned dialogue, the first figure questions the other, but in a tone somehow directed at the audience: “Comrade, are you ready?”

    From February 14 to February 17, the Trinity University Players performed “Masses and Man,” directed by Alex Oliver. It is a play about social revolution in the early 1900s. Although political in background, the play explores human nature through German expressionism.

    The story starts off with a Woman (Lauren Keith) attempting to join a worker’s committee. Despite her initial excitement in pursuing a social utopia, her eagerness wavers when confronted by the Nameless (Kathleen Arbogast). Discontent with the Woman’s notions of a paradise through peace, the Nameless urges for a utopia achieved through violence. The Woman refuses, and prevents acts of violence throughout the story. This leads her into capture by the state. Yet, despite help from both her bourgeois husband and the Nameless, the Woman willingly remains in prison to prevent a warden’s death. Ultimately, the Woman is executed.

    In a letter to an early producer, the author Ernst Toller states that his play “can only have a spiritual, never a concrete, reality.” This is the fundamental vision of German expressionism: that objectivity and reality are dictated by inner feelings. This performance captures this sentiment profoundly.

    Although I am reluctant to call the play “spiritual,” it did have a metaphysical atmosphere. The performance relies on physical expression to elevate the actors’ presence in the play. The puppet-stringed pantomime of the bankers (Sarah Bastos, Alex Bradley) is executed to an overexaggerated degree. Their movements are uncanny, the puppeteering motions allowing the actors to embody an eerie social reality. But what I found particularly intriguing were the movements of the Nameless. The performance makes her more than a mere frustrated idealist. In her first appearance, she comes down from the stage. Her movements are nimble yet deliberate, swift across rows of chairs like a serpent gliding across still grass, ghastly chants from the other actors rising like an array of tempting hisses, the captivated audience held by her alluring speech of revolution and change. In this, the Nameless transcends the state of actor on stage to embody humanity’s desire for volatile passion. 

    Naturally, one would wonder whether an expressionist play would lessen the presence of dialogue, favoring physical movement. Fortunately, the execution of the dialogue is superb. The characters are tasked with achieving convincing dialogue to attempt to garner sympathy for their cause from the audience. The passionate, heartwarming and empathetic pleas of the Woman contrast with the inciting, inflamed and rousing appeal of the Nameless. In this thematic and emotional conflict, I could not help but become heavily invested, struggling to either embrace the Woman’s compassionate innocence or empathize with the Nameless’ harrowing frustration. 

In other words, the dialogue was not lessened by the expressionism, nor vice-versa. Instead, expression and dialogue flowed together in the play, both helping create a metaphysical, captivating and deep atmosphere. 

    Personally, I had never seen a German expressionist play before attending this performance. My expectation was that the play would rely on physical expression–rather than substantial dialogue–to tell the story. But after seeing the performance, my perception was thoroughly proven wrong. Although it certainly deviates from the classic play structure, the performance has all the trappings of a traditional tragedy but is further enhanced by profound expressionism and dialogue.

The Art of Experience

A review of Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights.

I enter the room. Three rows of chairs sit parallel to each other on opposite sides, with a wide and long pathway separating them, a lighted pathway I have to cross to get to my seat. As I sit down, I realize the closeness of the theater props, the claustrophobia of the room, and most bizarrely, the lack of a stage. After waiting a few moments for the play to begin, an actress in a bright lab coat emerges from behind a curtain and steps into the pathway, three or four feet away from me. I then realized where the stage was: I was sitting on it.

Early in the fall semester, the Trinity University theater group performed an adaptation of Getrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, a modernist reception of the famous Elizabethan tragedy. Stein’s adaptation is a fantastical and intriguing deconstruction of the classic. The play picks up where the original classic left off with a few twists: a miserable Faustus has to cope with selling his soul to Mestipho so that he could have the power to create electric lights.

The story leaves Faustus to dwell in his misery, accompanied by a boy, a girl, and a loyal dog. The play continues with a woman named Marguerita Ida and Helena Annabel (yes, she is one person), who after spending time in the forest gets bitten by a viper. She then goes to Faustus, begging him to cure her of the poison. After much hesitation, Faustus agrees to help her. However, through his cure, Marguerita now has the ability to produce natural light, as opposed to the electric light that Faustus became so obsessed with. Because of her new talent, she becomes sought after by another man (“The Man from Over the Sea”) and Mephisto.

Dr. Faustus is deliberately disorienting, and embraces this confusion throughout the whole performance. The play captures a fragmented array of allegories and themes, incorporating symbols from the original work itself to allusions from the biblical Garden of Eden. The portrayal of the figures in the play also gives credence to the fragmented flow of the story, with each character played by more than one actor. One of the performers in the play undertook the role of Dr. Faustus, Marguerita Ida and Helena Annabel, the dog, and Mephisto.

The plot is not clear because the plot is not the centerpiece. The actors have many roles because it does not matter who plays which role. The stage does not have a definite area because the stage itself is meant to be shared with the audience.

However, despite the intended craziness, he play’s obsession with repetition brings a balance to the disorienting effects of the performance. The script of the play is filled with repeating dialogue, both in their responses to one another and in their soliloquies. I found the repetition to be calming. Not only does it offer an aesthetic flow of dialogue between the many actors engaging in many roles, it creates a feeling of solace within the play’s disorienting effect. The repetition grounded the reader in the present. But within this repetition, there is one aspect that I enjoyed at the performance I attended: the constant use of second person pronouns. The phrase “you” is continuously repeated throughout the play’s dialogue. But I did not see this phrase as solely referring to the other characters. I saw this phrase as a clear directive to the audience itself.

Thank you, said the dog. Will you? said the boy. Can you? said the woman. These phrases show up constantly throughout the play in an almost fatiguing repetition. But instead of just embedding direction in the dialogue, the word “you” becomes a way for the play to fully engage with the audience’s experience. The reference of “you” had an effect of immediacy, forcing me to understand the actors as people on my plane instead of distant, impersonal set pieces.

This is not the only way in which the performance plays with the audience’s experience. The stage itself becomes the first instance of engagement, with the close proximity of the actors and props immersing the audience into the stage itself. The actors themselves continuously engage with the audience, either by thrusting one of “Dr. Faustus’ lights” (a candle) at a spectator, or shaking one of the audience member’s hands as Faustus’ loyal dog. The lights in the room also form part of the experience, with the constant shifting and changing of the lighting’s direction mimicking the play’s fleeting sense of clarity.

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights is more of a performative experience than a traditional play. The plot is not clear because the plot is not the centerpiece. The actors have many roles because it does not matter who plays which role. The stage does not have a definite area because the stage itself is meant to be shared with the audience. The atmosphere of the theater room, theatrical lighting, dialogue, and the layout of the stage are all designed to engage with the audience’s experience. In other words, the audience becomes the play.

Part of the appeal of this play is accepting the unconventional. By embracing the play as an unconventional performative experience, I still became exposed to the trappings of a traditional play, but through a unique and admittedly profound aesthetic. With this sense of mind, Trinity Theater’s performance of Dr. Faustus Light the Lights is an intriguing play and an unforgettable experience.

Review: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom written by Charles Busch and directed by Sarah Bastos played in Trinity University’s Attic Theatre from Feb. 14-16. With a title like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, one can’t help but give this play a double take. One might suspect the show involves witchcraft, immorality, love, sin, sex or ecstasy, and while the show doesn’t fail to deliver on at least some of those elements, it’s really a campy play about female rivalry and friendship throughout the ages. This production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was excellently received because it took a mediocre script and truly brought it to life on stage.

The play is a satirical work that follows the struggle between two female vampires throughout time, focusing on biblical Sodom, 1920s Hollywood, and finally 1980s Los Angeles. The protagonists, La Condesa and Madeleine Astarte, played by Aria Gaston-Panthaki and Sophia Elsadig respectively, meet in Act I when Madeleine is offered as a human virgin sacrifice to the “Succubus” or La Condesa. La Condesa bites Madeleine’s neck intending to kill her, but Madeleine becomes a vampire instead. The rest of the story in Acts II and III follows the vampires as Madeleine seeks her revenge on La Condesa, primarily by stealing away La Condesa’s fame and fortune.

I won’t mince words: I’m not fond of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom as a script. There are some really moving moments written into the dialog while others (including the climax!) are rushed, cheapening the dynamic between the protagonists. There are clever innuendos, but also vulgar jokes that are hard-pressed for a laugh. There is potential to support the LGBTQIA+ community, but the play fails to do remarkable things with its queer characters. Yes, lesbian women are represented, but they’re represented as power-hungry, selfish, catty, and incapable of love. Even at the end, La Condesa and Madeleine only remain together out of pity, loneliness, self-preservation, and selfish ambition. I would argue that queer women, and all people for that matter, deserve a better representation than this in the theatre. In her director’s note, Sarah Bastos said that her goal with the show was “to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community…by introducing you to these two powerful, cunning, and beautiful lesbian women”. While I agree with Bastos that La Condesa and Madeleine are strong and intelligent women, I believe these traits manifested themselves in ugly ways. If this show is to truly support lesbian women, it must also show their hearts and humanity.

Although I disapprove of the script, I felt that Bastos and her team did an outstanding job staging the production, and I’m compelled to give them due praise. The designers truly outdid themselves in transporting the audience from one time period to the next. Holly Gabelmann’s scene design was appropriately crude in the first act before transitioning to vintage and then chic and in the second and third acts, an excellent reflection of the protagonists’ character developments. Alex Oliver, the costume designer, had the characters sporting the best of every era, using a mixture of archaic garments, flapper-inspired looks, and colorful sportswear. With each new act, I really could believe that decades or thousands of years had gone by.

To make the time transitions even more flawless, Sarah Bastos added an emcee-type character, played by Jude Casanova, who provided the audience with silly vampire facts like “Vampires drink blood!” never complete without an innuendo. The character allowed complex scene transitions to occur without snapping the audience out of the world of the play. I scarcely even noticed the set being moved around and recreated. By the time the emcee exited, a new decade waited on stage.

All in all, I was presently surprised by the great quality of this production in spite of my personal criticisms of the script. The actors were dedicated to their roles, the designers and crew transported me to three different time periods, and the director created a dynamic and smooth show. It would seem that only the playwright failed me.

Free use image.