Review: the strangers @ CBT

Note: Due to a series of unrelated events and user errors an indecipherable assortment of my personal thoughts and notes on this show was was mistakenly published in place of the actual review. Sincere apologies to all the artists involved, to CBT, or anyone else who happened upon those notes and mistook them for a review.  

the strangers

In the first moments of Clarence Brown Theatre's world premiere production of the strangers, the ensemble addresses the audience and explains that the show is a kind of conversation between playwright Christopher Oscar Peña and Thornton Wilder's seminal work Our Town. With the playwright's intentions so thoroughly laid bare it is precariously easy for theatre lovers to spend the evening congratulating themselves for picking out similarities in structure between the two works instead of experiencing the twin beating hearts of Peña's sensitive and sweeping play: a vibrant contemporary portrait of a changing America, and a somber contemplation of our encounters with the mysterious elements that shape human life: happenstance, tragedy, love, and death.

As with any new work, there are a few moments that ring less true than others, a homeless person who waxes a bit too poetical and transcendental; a cadre of teenage soccer players who are little more than straw men for white privilege. And occasionally it feels like Peña is ticking the boxes of hot button issues simply to remind us of the play's social relevance rather than to expressly highlight the experiences of a particular character or to forward the story. But, those are the exceptions that make the rule. The bulk of this text is fresh and clever, weaving together prosaic asides with crisp and truthful dialogue delivered by characters who typically appear only in brief episodes, but whose subtlety and depth leaves us with the indelible sense of a life fully lived somewhere outside the world of the stage. 

Peña has bulldozed Wilder's Govers Corners and built an entirely different town on top of it. The characters who inhabit this place are often uncertain, often wrong, often misunderstood. Sometimes this uncertainty generates a series of happy accidents that make for a hardy laugh, but far more often it ends in disaster. What elevates these little individual moments of misunderstanding and chaos into the realm of real tragedy has more to do with composition than with content. The play's driving narrative is simple enough: chris (Aaron Orlov) arrives in a small American city to play the role of the Stage Manager in a local production of Our Town, and ultimately meets his future husband (Jeff Dickamore). Through short scenes and asides the various subplots of the town's disparate citizens are revealed and begin to slowly intertwine with one another. Watching all of this unfold creates ever widening circles of awareness for the audience as the invisible strings governing the characters' lives become more and more apparent to us. These subtle revelations ultimately combine to serve as a haunting reminder that when calamity strikes (and it strikes more than once during  this play) it is never just an isolated event, but rather part of the larger workings of our world, a world that one day, inevitably, has a calamity in store for each of us too.

Through keen use of the stage space and immaculate pacing director John Sipes generates and maintains the excited tempo of a whirlwind tour as we flit from moment to moment. He draws us into the narrative with this vigorous energy, and then, at just the right moment, provides the audience with time and space to lean in and focus, to take it all in, and to get our bearings before setting off again. Sipes is also adept at producing stage images that are at once stirring and unsettling. The most evocative and hauntingly beautiful of these was an enormous stage-sized bed turned perfect white wedding cake complete with solitary groom, and a slow procession of dusty gray denizens of the underworld, encircling a thin stream of dust - falling hourglass like from the heavens - slowly and inevitably filling the suitcase of the newest arrival.  

The diverse ensemble of UT's graduate theatre department do excellent work representing characters from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. The ensemble strides confidently through Peña's naturalistic contemporary language, and delivers discerning and nuanced performances even in the briefest of interactions. It is clear that the cast's two year long collaboration with the playwright pays dividends here, as at times the portrayals are so effortless I was not certain if the audience was being addressed by a character or the actor playing them. Emily Kicklighter, Charlotte Munsen, Miguel A. Faña, Jude Carl Vincent and Lauren Pennline all deliver moments of exceptional power, insight, and humor. Jeff Dickamore (dave) for his shockingly self aware and honest aside, and Carlene Pochette for her devastating portrayal of a coerced suicide are two performances of particular note. Of course the play's lead Aaron Orlov (chris) will be remembered by most for his sweeping and expertly deployed monologue given at the top of the second act, and he rightfully deserves credit for this exceptional bit of rich storytelling. But, I was even more captivated by his beautiful expression of vulnerability throughout the play. Orlov does a fantastic job presenting chris' resilient though profoundly damaged optimism through a subtly eager physicality and brief moments of bright humor. In this way we come to know chris both as the as a man who remains hopeful in spite of his experiences and who is deeply troubled by his own insecurities. For the principal character in a play titled, the strangers Orlov's chris has been masterfully crafted to be immanently familiar. 

Scenic Designer Andrea Lauer's extremely deep thrust set fashioned as a long acute triangle creates a telescoping effect that allows for up close and intimate moments downstage while creating a broad imperfect horizon upstage. Ingeniously, the design also forces the audience to gaze across the playing space at one another and be confronted by the homogeneity of the race in attendance. Of course that would not necessarily be true in other venues but it is especially effective in this community. Lauer also serves as the show's Costume Designer and deserves additional recognition for her work on the show's final scene: delivering a host of ash covered individuals whose presence evokes both gravestone monoliths and our generation's most iconic image of disaster: the victims of the 9/11 attack. Lighting Designer Kenton Yeager's modern LED footlights seem to float the stage atop a dark void, creating a separate and decidedly theatrical world set apart from the audience, while his stark and vivid lighting choices remind us that we are watching a play where emotional landscape is more important than specific times and places; a world where Sipes and Peña can comfortably engage with us through theatrical conceits and symbolic language.    

I applaud CBT for promoting the development of this exciting new work and for fearlessly bringing diverse voices to Knoxville. Their collaboration with Peña has permitted this deft and topical playwright to speak truthfully about the perspectives of those who lack adequate representation both in theatre and society at large. Even more importantly, by premiering the work in Knoxville rather than a larger more traditional venue, Peña is able to confront an audience who cannot fail to recognize the world of the play, but may strongly disagree with what Peña has to say about it. Ultimately with the strangers Peña and CBT have created a rich and resonant work that highlights and yet often transcends current social frictions; using today's headlines to dig into the deeper question: If we take a wide enough view of humanity and a closer view of those around us, is it possible we might come to regard one another as something other than strangers? 

- JP Schuffman is a theatre critic and the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club. KTC's own original world premiere The Story Story runs through March 24.