‘Shana Unsettled’ at The Baltimore Playwrights Festival by Amanda Gunther

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The premier show of The Baltimore Playwrights Festival kicks off at Fells Point Corner Theatre this summer. Shana Unsettled marks the first of seven shows featured in the festival across the Baltimore City area. Written by local playwright Ronda Cooperstein – the play explores the notion of a woman trapped in her own mind as well as in a society that she doesn’t understand nor does it understand her.

(l to r) Beni (James Robert Giza) and Hadi (Jamie Driskill). Photo by Ken Stanek.

Cooperstein scratches the surface of various themes in her writing but the play as a whole feels unfinished. There is far too much going on without any clarity to how it all fits together. The concept of the play is stuck in a muddy gray ambiguous area of half-sanities and half-realities. We have whole scenes where characters are encountered that are never made clear as to whether or not these characters actually exist or exist only inside Shana’s mind, if they are alive or dead, etc. These confusing moments are strung loosely along by a series of monologues performed by Shana.

The characters that are presented in Cooperstein’s work are shallow and static. They didn’t give me enough of their stories and emotions to make me want to care, and there is even a character who is completely superfluous to the work. The character of Deborah has no real purpose to the show, she doesn’t motivate the plot or drive what little actions there are happening in the story, but rather acts as a sounding board for Shana so that the main character has fewer monologues to no one.

Flat characters and unclear intentions aside – the pacing of the play drags. The big revealing moment happens in the last five minutes of the show and because the first 80 minutes moved so slowly I was left in disappointment that the reveal of all the problems was not bigger. In a way the play is inconclusive, leaving you wondering what happened, and if you really understood it.

Lighting Designer Eric Bowers was intent on straining the audience’s eyes, much of the show, especially the first ten minutes, being in barely visible light. The concept that Bowers was attempting was clear; it was dark outside, but with such subtle hints of light on the characters for such prolonged periods of time, it was painful to watch. And the lighting did not improve much during the ‘day’ or ‘bright’ scenes. If this was meant to be a play on the fuzziness of her internal mind it did not translate as such.

Shana (Kelly Cavanaugh). Photo by Ken Stanek.

Directors Jim Knipple and Janel Miley’s choice to set the show entirely inside of Shana’s mind did little for the clarity of the work. Knipple and Miley seemed to guide their cast to one level of emotion, which was anger, played at one note whenever it was experienced. This happened with Shana (Kelly Cavanaugh) mostly when she was having her mock conversations with God; and with Amos (James Robert Giza) and Michael (Jamie Driskill) whenever they were speaking to Shana as soldiers.

Driskill and Giza, however, did become much more subdued characters when playing the old Jewish salts Beni and Hadi. These two actors took small moments of simple life and made them believable for the audience and their performance in this production is to be commended. This new premier work does needs retooling but has the potential to work as a good play, and The Fells Point Corner Theatre should be commended for taking on this rough project.

Running Time: One hour and 25 minutes, with no intermission.

Shana Unsettled plays through July 15, 2012 as a part of The Baltimore Playwrights Festival and is hosted at The Fells Point Corner Theatre. For tickets, call the box office at  (410) 276-7837, or purchase them online.

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