Spine: Review of ‘World Builders’ at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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We are all populated by the images of main stream culture. Whether you’re 80 and still want Sam to play it again, or 50 and still believe in the Force or 30 and still imagine yourself at Hogwarts with Harry Potter – or any of a host of role playing characters somewhat original or stolen variations – the values, representations, fantasies, fears, and lies of the culture shape our understanding of the world.

The culture creates our expectations about love and relationships, gives definition to our belief in God and in War. It helps us form our perceptions about mental illness, about education, about family life.

Chris Thorn as Max and Brenna Palughi as Whitney. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Chris Thorn as Max and Brenna Palughi as Whitney. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Through its lens we encounter the world, we encounter others, stereotyping them, profiling them, categorizing them and their behaviors in one way or another.

World Builders by Johnna Adams, being given its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, explores that lens and the over populated and hyperactive imagination and its debilitating effect on human relations.

Set in the present, in the psychiatric wing of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, we find Max and Whitney, both suffers from schizoid personality disorder. “Now, what does that have to do with me?” you might ask. “I don’t create fantasy worlds.”

And if that were true, then World Builders would be nothing more that a play about two people with said disorder, who take a new drug and are cured.

World Builders is a love story, a story about one person developing empathy for another; but such empathy cannot happen as long as the fictions which dominate our lives prevent us from truly experiencing the other, who happens to be standing right there in front of us.

Max and Whitney are played by utterly convincing Chris Thorn and Brenna Palughi. Their chemistry and the relationship they nurture is the core of this warm-hearted comedy.

Chris Thorn as Max. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Chris Thorn as Max. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Thorn’s Max spends his days watching over the imaginary victims of an imaginary serial killer who has dug a hole in the earth where he places his kidnapped women. He can do nothing to save them but desire their salvation: as a result, he discovers intimate details about these women, about whom in real life he knows almost nothing. Then, at random times, he wakes from a night’s sleep to find a new victim in the hole.

Palughi’s Whitney has no taste for the details. The world to which she escapes is the stuff of fantasy decatology, which she began when she was twelve. Over the years, she has built an elaborate cosmology of solar systems, species (flying, amphibious, and space hopping), as well as the personal histories of 40 plus main characters and hundreds of minor ones. Unlike Max, she exists no where in her world. Rather, she is its author and constant creator and reviser.

You might call her an artist, particularly now as she wants more than anything to share her world with another human being. You see, given the new drug she is taking, her world is beginning to die.

Brenna Palughi as Whitney. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Brenna Palughi as Whitney. Photo by Seth Freeman.

Hence, the previously self-obsessed are beginning to recognize the existence of others, and see their importance to their lives.

If only there were such a drug and the human psyche were so simple, but this is theatre after all, and what happens in theatre can stay in theatre, even if it sheds a little light on our mysterious human condition.

Johnna Adams constructs World Builders around three scenes. The first two are particularly tight as they take us through the initial contact in scene one and the admission of love in scene two.

Scene three still has a few issues beyond being somewhat repetitive. As Max and Whitney struggle to decide how to live their life together beyond the psychiatric wing, the tension between real world people with schizoid personality disorder, and who may need medication to stay balanced, and the metaphorical imaginative person who values his symbol-making capacity stretches credulity and understanding a little too tautly on occasion.

Nicole A. Watson has directed the play with firm attention to its delightful balance between humor and dramatic flare, and she has used Robert Klingelhoefer’s set, a lounge space seen in the round, organically.

Tony Galaska provides the lights and Stephanie Shaw, the costumes, both adding to that institutional blandness.  I must admit, however, when I saw Whitney’s sexy “getting out of the hospital” attire, I was suddenly aware of the class differences between the two characters.

You might call her an artist, particularly now as she wants more than anything to share her world with another human being. You see, given the new drug she is taking, her world is beginning to die.

Hence, the previously self-obsessed are beginning to recognize the existence of others, and see their importance to their lives.

If only there was such a drug and the human psyche were so simple, but this is theatre afterall, and what happens in theatre can stay in theatre, even if it sheds a little light on our mysterious human condition.

World Builders plays through tomorrow, August 2, 2015, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival performing in the Marinoff Theater – Center for Contemporary Arts/II – 62 West Campus Drive, in Shepherdstown, WV. For tickets, call the box office at (304) 876-3473/(800) 999-2283, or purchase them online.

LINK
The Playwright’s Playground – The Playmakers CATF 2015: Part 3: Director Nicole A. Watson on ‘World Builders’ by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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