‘Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy’ at The Mobtown Players

THREE STARS

It’s incredible how quickly the artificial can become the organic. Politics have no place in love but all too often find their way between the emotions; like a weed forcing its way up through the roots of a flower bed, choking the natural life out of something beautiful and turning it into something revolting. The Mobtown Players bring to the stage a juxtaposition of the beauty in romance against the vile reality of politics with their presentation of Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy, a play written by Eric Bland. Directed by Brian. S. Kraszewski, this work explores a myriad of dramatic concepts infused into a series of loosely connected vignettes.

Beowulf (Josh Thomas) and Victory (Laura Holland). Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.
Beowulf (Josh Thomas) and Victory (Laura Holland). Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.

Scenic Artist Kristie Winther presents the audience with two vivid backgrounds to delineate between the grimy streets of Baltimore City and the rural sprawling desert of Arizona. Winther’s use of vivid colors and abstract shapes in the massive graffiti tag for the Baltimore scene looks lively as if it were ripped straight from the street corner. Her more subdued and warming color scheme used in the Arizonian backdrop create an intriguing contrast between the two venues.

Playwright Eric Bland presents a unique amalgamation of topics in his work, conceptually connecting love and politics with unusual characters in strange yet familiar circumstances. Bland’s emphasis on the political portion of the play reads more as a faint guiding framework rather than an integral part of the work. The scene in the commune garden toward the end of Act I feels wildly out of place because it suddenly invites the harsh nature of politics into this otherwise love-centric performance in a most unsettling fashion. Bland fails to find the balance between these two guiding forces so that when the political nature of these characters and their stories rears its head it feels awkward.

Director Brian S. Kraszewski does the play a disservice by not driving the tempo of the production. Because the play does not follow a strict linear format or basic narrative there are many chances for the audience to lose focus, interest, and attention. There are pauses in characters’ monologues that feel unnecessary and create a drag in the play’s natural momentum. Because of the vignette nature of the work, the play requires a much more diligent approach to the pacing in order to feel organic and function as an accessible piece of theatre.

Other of Kraszewski’s choices come into question in regards to the overall way in which he chose to handle the scene shifts. At first it is explained in the text that only some of the members of the group leave Baltimore for Arizona while others stay home. This is articulated with a shift in the backdrop, but as the play goes on, the backdrop fails to continue its shift when returning to those characters in Baltimore. It is unclear if this is a deliberate choice or meant to show that those remaining in Baltimore have then migrated to Arizona, creating points of confusion in an already convoluted work.

Kraszewski attempts to create an organic ‘coffee shop’ atmosphere during larger collective scenes where the focus of dialogue shifts back and forth across a series of small groups. In doing so with the audible whispering, excessive pantomime, and general movement of the groups not in the audience’s direct focus he creates an enormous distraction. Rather than focusing on what’s being said by those speaking, attentions are turned to the whispers that are just loud enough to be heard but not understood, and all the busy background action that is happening around them.

The overall presentation of the show lacks proper structure. Being comprised largely of monologues given by individual characters, the show falters in its delivery of these lengthy texts because of misguided character choices, unclear execution of beats within the text, and an overall unsettled sense of familiarity with the text itself. Iracel (Kristine Sloan) and Megan (Carly Donnelly) have the biggest struggle with their delivery during their main monologues. Donnelly delivers what should be an emotionally crippling monologue with uncertainty, sounding lost in the text and nervous with her words. Sloan’s bitter unyielding character choice does not fit the monologue to which she is assigned nor does she allow the character to grow emotionally within the confines of her speech.

Sloan does however give a stunning dance performance two scenes later with Patrick Gorirossi; the pair wending their bodies around each other like two fluid streams of water, each crumbling beneath the other in a delectable entanglement of bodies and emotions. Her dancing skills are impressive and a larger showcase of these abilities would have been enjoyable. Donnelly, as the voice of the blue-woman puppet, gives a riveting performance akin to a Kate-Monster type character during the “Puppet Duo” scenes. Her sprightly and high-pitched voice garners laughs from the audience.

There are collective moments where the audience is both intrigued and engaged by the happenings on stage, one of the strongest in that category being the intense rhythmic introduction to the piece, delivered as a beat-style poetry jam. The words and stream of vocal sound bounce from one person to another like a river tumbling through the rapids; growing stronger and stronger until it reaches the crescendo of a waterfall.

Despite the plays issues there are some exceptionally compelling and emotionally grounded performances given throughout the play. Beowulf (Josh Thomas) takes to his guitar with a serene voice to match his gentle strums, a beautiful moment that creates an essence of self-actualization for all to enjoy. Joey (Patrick Gorirossi) while appearing only briefly, delivers a stunning emotional outburst with such a harsh wave of exploding pathos that his short-lived moment in the spotlight is memorable.

It is the women in this production, three in particular, that carry the strongest and most focused performances. Becky (Katharine Vary) Hollis (Rachel Verhaaren) and Victory (Laura Holland) deliver captivating monologues and dialogue scenes that engage the audience with the story. Though Verhaaren and Vary share a scene, it is mostly their monologues that are the standout performances.

Holland delivers fluid imagery in her poetic monologue early in the first act. It is beautiful, vivid, and inviting, her mind whizzing like a TARDIS through all of time and space jumping back and forth with topics and subjects, occasionally touching base with a delightful image or carefully churned phrase. Later in the second act Holland presents a sensual speech that is dripping and ripe with sexual overtones, the audience clinging and salivating at her orgasmic approach to this segment of text.

Vary, who handles a section of the opening rhythmic throw-down with vivacious flare, has moxie in her vocal cadence. Her ability to make even her subtle moments on stage feel lively is impressive. Engaged as an active listener during a scene shared with Hollis, Vary showcases her natural talent for directing the audience’s attention to where it should be. Her eyes emote a world of sensations while she quietly hangs on every word of Hollis’ story; a truly remarkable display of how not all profound acting comes from text.

Hollis (l- Rachel Verhaaren) and Becky (r-Katharine Vary) with Jesse (background- Robert Vary). Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.
Hollis (l- Rachel Verhaaren) and Becky (r-Katharine Vary) with Jesse (background-Robert Vary). Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.

Verhaaren as the slightly quirky Hollis character drives the middle of the first act with an adventurous story. There is something fascinatingly intense about the way a chaotic cosmos of pathos comes pouring out of her in this unyielding stream of excitement, bursting with interruptions of anger, confusion, and illusion. This “2 Become 1” monologue is the perfect portrayal of her character’s earnest and naïve but curious soul. A truly stunning and consistent character throughout, Verhaaren gives an exceptional performance.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy plays through March 22, 2014 at The Mobtown Players at Meadow Mill— 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Suite 114 in Baltimore, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door— no credit cards at the door at this time—or in advance online.