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Review #2: ‘House.’ at Arts Collective @HCC

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For the last 21 years, the Arts Collective at Columbia’s Howard Community College has been an incubator for developing talent and nurturing new and interesting stage productions. With House., an original comedy now in workshop in the Studio Theatre at HCC’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, they continue that tradition in hilarious style. Penned and directed by Daniel Johnston, House. tells the story of ten very different contestants participating in a “Big Brother”-style reality show for a one million dollar prize.

For Johnston, who co-directs Arts Collective’s What Improv Group, this is both the first play that has been produced and the first he’s directed. Hopefully, it will not be his last in either category, as House. is skillfully scripted and helmed, successfully breathing life into what could have been stock reality show archetypes.

Top Row, Left to Right: Iris Shih, Christian Preziosi, Alex Becker, Sierra Young, Chaseedaw Giles, Courtney Branch, Jordan Colea, Colin Riley, and Taylor Purnell. Bottom Row, Left to Right: Thomas Matera, Warren Harris, Wesley LeRoux, Gabrielle Amaro, and Brandon Furr. Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.

Top Row, Left to Right: Iris Shih, Christian Preziosi, Alex Becker, Sierra Young, Chaseedaw Giles, Courtney Branch, Jordan Colea, Colin Riley, and Taylor Purnell. Bottom Row, Left to Right: Thomas Matera, Warren Harris, Wesley LeRoux, Gabrielle Amaro, and Brandon Furr. Photo by St. Johnn Blondell.

The Studio Theatre is essentially a smallish black box, higher than it is wide with seats in an arc around three sides, leaving a rather compact performance space in the middle. As a result, the set is necessarily spare: in stark black and white, punctuated with a few pieces of gray upholstered furniture placed on slightly raised platforms, and a row of eight bar stools on a higher platform at the back of the stage. Eye-catching when empty, the surroundings seem to melt into the background when the actors are actually onstage, allowing the audience to focus on the action.

And what action there is! Our hosts for the evening, Pearl and Onyx Stone, played by Taylor Purnell and Colin Riley, open the show with great fanfare. The pair (who I assumed were brother and sister, although this is never made completely clear) are very different; Pearl is the calm center, while Onyx clearly displays his belief that he is too good for this rinky-dink show with every curled lip and disdainfully flourished martini glass. One of the most consistent sources of hilarity is watching Onyx become increasingly inebriated and belligerent as the television show drags on, while Pearl struggles to keep him on task and on script.

Our ten contestants consist of Liston (Christian Preziosi), a snarky hipster with a semi-secret boyfriend at home in New England; Michael (Brandon Furr), polite and serious with a wife and imminent baby at home; Mickey (Warren Harris), flamboyant and not-too-bright with a huge crush on Liston; Fatima (Iris Shih), a quiet aspiring medical student with a hijab and an ever-present book; Carlos (Wesley LaRoux), a mechanic with a huge family in New Jersey and a well-honed torso under his always-unbuttoned shirt; Andrea (Gabrielle Amaro), loud, proud and in-your face, whether you want her there or not; Lucy (Courtney Branch), a wannabe model from West Virginia who really believes that she can form lasting friendships on the show; Christine (Sierra Young), a preppy evangelical Christian student at Brown, who plans to donate the prize money to missionaries; Elaine (Chaseedaw Giles), an “almost forty” year-old fashionista with blue nails and lipstick and the strategic instincts of a chess player; and Peter (Tom Matera), self-proclaimed genius at gamesmanship and manipulation whose alliances never quite seem to work out. The ten are introduced at the top of the show with the heavily-edited bios standard on reality television; however, we discover later that each of them has much deeper reasons for wanting to win the prize money.

That is one of the surprise gifts of House.: Each of these characters emerges as an actual multilayered person, even the ones that don’t stay on the show long.

Playwright/Director Daniel Johnston. Photo courtesy of Arts Collective@HCC.

Playwright/Director Daniel Johnston. Photo courtesy of Arts Collective@HCC.

This is accomplished through a combination of strong writing and directing from Daniel Johnston, and a cast that has clearly bought into the characters they’re embodying, flaws and all. While all of the actors do a creditable job, the real standouts are the scheming trio of Matera, Preziosi and Giles. You can practically see the gears turning in their heads all the time, and yet Peter, Liston and Elaine are never unlikeable, and you’re never quite sure who you should be rooting for. Christian Preziosi’s Liston in particular sneaks up on you, much the way his character does on the rest of the contestants; you don’t pay that much attention to him, and then suddenly he’s the spider in the middle of the web and no one can figure out how he got there. It’s a masterful performance.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Alex Becker (Cameraman) and Jordan Colea (Hair and Makeup) who, while completely silent, play multiple essential roles in the play, including portraying the contestants in flashback “video clips” and literally acting as furniture, holding mirrors and accessories for the actors to use. Colea in particular pulls hilarious faces that say more than words ever could.

For all of its strengths, the second act of House. goes on a bit too long, with at least one immunity challenge too many, making the ending rather anti-climatic. The actors remain fully engaged and engaging until the end, but the script seems to run out of steam as more and more of the characters are kicked out of the house and sent to be part of the largely silent and non-participatory “Jury” at the back of the stage. I would have liked to see them remain more involved somehow. There is a cute bit involving having the audience vote for “America’s Favorite” from among the full roster of contestants and having that person receive a $250,000 consolation prize. In general, however, I think the second half of the show could be tightened up for future productions.

There will be future productions, won’t there, Mr. Johnston?

For now, unfortunately, House. is only running one more night, with an 8:00 performance Tonight. Catch it before it’s gone!

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

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House. has one more performance TONIGHT March 12, 2016 at 8 PM, at Arts Collective @ HCC performing at Howard Community College’s Studio Theatre – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, purchase them online, or at the door.

LINKS:
Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House.’: Part 1: Playwright/Director Daniel Johnston by Joel Markowitz.

Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House.’: Part 2: Cast Members Gabrielle Amaro, Alex Becker, Courtney Branch, and Jordan Colea by Joel Markowitz.

Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House.’: Part 3: Cast Members Brandon Furr, Chaseedaw Giles, Warren Harris, and Wesley LeRoux by Joel Markowitz.

Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House.’: Part 4: Cast Members Chania Hudson, Tom Matera, and Christian Preziosi and Crew Member Taylor Purnell by Joel Markowitz.

Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House.’: Part 5: Cast Members Colin Riley, Iris Shih, and Sierra Young.

HCC’s Arts Collective Premieres Local Playwright’s Original Comedy, ‘House.’ on March 11 and 12, 2016 by Susan G. Kramer.

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