Usually, when I am in the theatre, I’m very grateful for the fourth wall. The players interact with each other, and I am content merely to sit and watch and enjoy, or passively ponder. Yet in the University of Maryland’s School of Theatre Dance Performance Studies production of Sandwalk, directed by Leigh Wilson Smiley, they constantly break the fourth wall, talking and interacting directly with the audience, in a way that dramatically magnifies the impact of the production.
Sandwalk is a production about journeys: specifically, Charles Darwin’s “private spiritual and scientific odyssey” and the journey of the company as they created this production – their relationship to Darwin. The production explores why Darwin waited 17 years to publish his On the Origin of the Species: the experiences and factors in his life that led not only to him developing his theory, but also made him wait so many years to publish them. Jointly, the actors explore – talking directly to the audience – their own feelings about the development of the production. Darwin’s journey is not so very different from the journey we all have to make: when we have hard decisions, do we keep quiet, or do we speak out? Darwin resolved this as he walked around a natural path near his home – a sandwalk – for years. Similarly—and something the production makes very clear—we all have our own personal sandwalks in our lives.
Sandwalk is a “devised production,” which means that rather than a single person writing the script and then the company performing it, the whole show has essentially been collectively built from scratch. The actors, the tech people and the director created the piece together, using their own personal experiences to shape the production. I was surprised at how well this format worked for this production: periodically, an actor would share an experience that related to and enhanced the message of the show. One actress shared her dilemma of working on a production dealing with evolution despite being a firm Christian and believer in creationism. Another actor talked about how he and his friend were raised in very similar circumstances, yet one ended up in college, the other in a gang – which choice was “right”?
The combination of these personal experiences, with the moments from Darwin’s life, all very pointedly directed at the audience through their constant breaking of the fourth wall, makes this production engaging and thought-provoking.
The individual elements in the production were quite good, effectively coming together for the greater message of the production. Cast members Caroline Stefanie Clay, Teresa Ann Virginia Bayer, Dave Demke, Emma Lou Hébert, Nick Horan, Rob Jansen, Julia Klavans, Justin Le, Sam Mauceri, Laurie Frederick Meer, Claudia Rosales, and Anupama Singh Yadav did a fine job – being both themselves and playing various people in Darwin’s life in a realistic way. I do wish, however, that some of the personal experiences were better integrated into the whole of the production, because at times the production was somewhat confusing.
The costumes, designed by Kelsey Hunt, though minimal, effectively supported the characters – be they top hats and handkerchiefs for the disapproving voices of society in Darwin’s head, or a skirt for Darwin’s wife. Similarly, Scenic Designer Drew Kaufman, Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna, Music Director Ethan Watermeier and Sound Designer Jeffrey Dorfman, all made solid contributions. For example, in the scene where we are first introduced to the voices of society in Darwin’s head, the eerie lighting and sound heightened greatly the effect of his doubts – both on him and on the audience.
I was most impressed with Graham Brown’s choreography. There is quite a lot of dance in the production, all contributing wonderfully to the message. For example, in response to Darwin’s pondering of how not believing in creationism is considered by society to be heresy, four separate creation myths from different cultures are danced, in a way that enhances the impact of the myth.
In today’s dramatically polarized society, we all have things that we need to stand up for. But sometimes – or even most of the time – taking that stand can be very difficult. Sandwalk doesn’t negate that difficulty, but rather acknowledges it and gently pushes through it, in a most open-minded and understanding way, and encourages us to be more open-minded, and to have the courage to take a stand, in a most enjoyable way.
Running Time: Approximately one hour.
Sandwalk plays through Saturday, May 5, 2012 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at University of Maryland – at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193, in College Park, MD. For tickets, call (301) 405-ARTS (2787,) or order them online.