Reviewed by Michael Landes
A transgender survivor of Nazi Germany, an American activist for Palestine, and a centuries-old Greek tragedy may seem like an unusual assembly, but The Seeing Place Theater makes a great effort to bring these three parts together under the theme of calling out power. The company has called this project “The Whistleblower Series”, and the result, though wobbly at times, is an excellent, worthwhile exploration of injustice and personal responsibility.
Two plays, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” and “I Am My Own Wife”, share many similarities––both written in the early 2000s, both critically acclaimed, and both one-person shows. But from there, they diverge. The former is a documentary play about the titular student-turned-activist (played by Erin Cronican), and draws the text of the play mostly from Corrie’s own journals and writings about her life before and during her solidarity work in Palestine. The play is split about evenly between these two portions of her life, the first largely set within her bedroom in an upper right corner of the performance space, and the latter allowing Ms. Cronican to travel through the rest of the space.
The conclusion of this piece was its highest point, but throughout Ms. Cronican did a remarkable job of inhabiting the young, idealistic and compassionate activist. At times, however, she seemed hindered by some production choices. In order to pay homage to the nature of the piece, she spent the majority of the first half reading from journals, thus hiding her face and making unclear any reason she might have to share this text with the audience. Coupled with her placement in the corner of the theater, this led to a largely static image that lasted for a not-insignificant amount of time.
“I Am My Own Wife” featured an equally dynamic and exciting performance from Brandon Walker, whose talent in transforming his physique is put to great use in the play. This allows him to alternate easily between over forty characters at the drop of a hat. Most frequently, however, he inhabits Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who runs a small antique museum out of her house in East Berlin. On a trip to Germany, playwright Doug Wright discovers her museum with the help of his friend, journalist John Marks. Taken by her ability to survive through the Third Reich and Soviet control of Eastern Germany, Wright decides to interview her further. His tapes make up the backbone of the play, which weaves through her life, gay life in Eastern Germany, and the possibility that she informed for the Stasi. Walker makes for an especially unusual Charlotte, being easily over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and deep-voiced, but this only contributes to the overall mythic aura of the tale. The audience is never unaware that this is a retelling of Charlotte’s story, a retelling powerfully done.
With such a vast library of characters, it is inevitable that a few descend into caricature, which is not necessarily a bad thing; however aggressively acting teachers may campaign, Mr. Walker need not produce a fully realized Stasi officer during every take Charlotte tells. But when these characters are central or near-central to the narrative, like John Marks, Wright’s friend, the narrative naturally changes. Walker ultimately comes off as an enemy of Wright’s cause, and though minor, this change transforms the play from being about Charlotte’s mysterious past to being about Wright’s crusade, a valid play, but one that perhaps is less interesting than the former.
The third play, “The People Vs. Antigone”, differed in that the text was an original adaptation of “Antigone” written and directed by Brandon Walker. Performances throughout were excellent, but at times seemed regrettably hindered by line memorization for multiple performers. The plot is largely untouched, but with some detail added––Eurydice (Isa Goldberg) receives a much expanded role, Haemon and Antigone are seen discussing their wedding and relationship, and Creon is portrayed as a misogynist. The first scene (of Creon revising his speech to the people) included multiple references to Trump, but both luckily and unluckily the text did not follow through on this throughout. Luckily, because overt Trump plays at this point only elicit sighs; unluckily, because without this specifically contemporary touch, the purpose behind the adaptation was unclear. The text didn’t quite make enough changes to justify performing “The People Vs. Antigone” instead of simply “Antigone”.
The set and tech, shared between all three, was genuinely impressive. At least seven projectors transformed the space in “Rachel Corrie” and “My Own Wife”, though they were used to better effect in the second piece; in “Rachel Corrie”, Palestine was conjured mostly through camouflage, her bedroom through abstract patterns. While in “My Own Wife” the projectors turned the space into a museum, a cabaret in a basement, a Stasi jail, and countless more locations. Another bit of stage magic in “My Own Wife” was the moment when Charlotte produces doll-sized furniture artifacts from a hatbox, representing her museum; this simple bit of performance was executed with great conviction, and became one of the best moments in a very good play. “The People Vs. Antigone” used the space brilliantly, including multiple scenes behind the audience in the bathrooms by the tech booth. Strangely, none of the three plays seemed to take full advantage of the set, specifically the small stage set in the upper left corner. However, when it was used, this piece of set was used brilliantly.
“The Whistleblower Series” is ultimately imperfect, but well worthwhile. Although “The Seeing Place Theater” claims that these are three works about calling out power, I would argue that they are in fact various interactions with power; having it, losing it, redistributing it, hiding, or withholding it. The three disparate parts ultimately join together into a fascinating exploration of these dynamics, one that is more than worth anyone’s time.
The Whistleblower series plays now through May, 13, 2018 at the Paradise Factory 64 E. 4th St. http://www.seeingplacetheater.com