Abuse of Authority: Thoughts on the staged reading of You Don’t Know How It Feels – April 8, 2017

It’s true – I don’t know how it feels.

I can’t even properly process what I felt when I saw the staged reading of Kelley Blessing’s play You Don’t Know How It Feels, which tackles the issue of child sexual abuse from the victim’s perspective – the loss of innocence, the stigma of shame and (eventual) road to recovery. The conflicting, often confusing emotions associated with such a heinous act is unfathomable to comprehend from an outside perspective, yet there are far too many people who know how this feels. Sexual abuse happens and can happen anywhere and to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, yet it is often not discussed in public.

This play aims to break that silence.

I was invited to reading by Kelley, which took place at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre presented by Darknight Productions. While I’ve read many of her other works (often as a quasi-dramaturge / editor) and attended a staged reading of a musical she co-wrote (The Sounds of Screams), this would be a totally different experience, as You Don’t Know How It Feels is semi-autobiographical.

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[Disclaimer: Kelley has been a friend of mine for many years, with whom I’ve shared many theatrical experiences as audience members, yet I was unaware of this traumatic incident that happened long before I met her. It had not crossed my mind to ask, and I suppose it’s not something she would willingly share. I’m debating whether or not to follow up this entry with an in-depth interview / discussion about the process of writing this play. Our friendship started with our mutual love of musical theatre (and Sherlock Holmes), and remained jovial through the years, so I would not want to inadvertently trigger any additional trauma (if that’s the right term) by having her revisit those memories. Then again, the purpose of writing this play is to give a voice to the voiceless, so this story needs to be told.]

The play takes place in a middle school gymnasium and focuses on the interactions of high school track teacher Nick McCoe with three of his students – Dena, Sara and Devon, as well as with the principal, Frank Stanley. The interactions between McCoe and his students seem harmless at first, then turns sinister, as he targets Dena, and manipulates her into keeping his subsequent assaults a secret. The resolution in the play is fairly optimistic, as Sara and Devon, Dena’s best friend and boyfriend, respectively, discover the root cause of her mood swings, report their findings to Principal Stanley and McCoe is exposed (no pun intended) for his crimes.

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As it was a staged reading, the actors had scripts in hand, and as it was the first reading, much of the dialogue came across as stage dialogue rather than natural speech. Gabriel Morales perhaps had the most difficult role in playing Mr. McCoe, juggling the Jekyll and Hyde personas of the helpful teacher and manipulative predator with subtle stealth so as to break the façade he created. As Dena, Jadelee Vega had an equally difficult task of portraying the range and depth of emotion required to recount this harrowing experience. The overall design was effective – the set design sparse, the lighting design reflective of Dena’s inner turmoil and the sound design jarring as it should be. While the subject matter was disturbing, it was not overt, as the instances of assault occurred off stage.

There was a talk back with the cast and creative team with the invited audience encouraged to give feedback to the piece. Constructive criticism was presented, along with insight from the cast and creative team with regards to the process of developing the play. There is great potential for this play to have a future in a broader venue, as the issue of sexual assault, especially against children, is a crime gaining attention as victims are coming forward to tell their story, bringing awareness so as to (hopefully) prevent them from happening, and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

This is a start.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or know someone who may be, please contact RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit www.rainn.org

For more information sexual assault, rape and incest, visit www.joyfulheartfoundation.org 

The Complexities of Love: Thoughts on Burning – February 27, 2016

A modern adaptation of classic plays is a mainstay across all entertainment mediums, and sometimes the subtle changes in the adaptations can bring forth a new interpretation of the original source material as the core themes remain intact. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is a familiar one, probably best known in popular culture as the Steve Martin film Roxanne, but while that modern adaptation is a mostly humorous (as was the original play), Burning, the modern adaptation written by Ginger Lazarus and presented by the Resonance Ensemble, is somber and thought provoking. I became aware of this adaptation through a friend of mine, who knew one of the actors in the play (which had its world premiere at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s), and asked if I would be interested in going. While I did not have a chance to see the Resonance Ensemble’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, performed in rep with Burning, I had seen the most recent Broadway production of Cyrano, and so I was already familiar with the nuances of the story.

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Burning is set in an unnamed American town located near an Army base, circa 2008, and the “twist” in this adaptation is the titular character is female, and the external deformity from which the classic Cyrano’s insecurities derived transforms into an internal struggle this modern Cyrano, renamed Cy Burns, carries within her due to her experiences as a gay soldier. Another addition to the adaptation is the discussion and disclosure of the mistreatment of female soldiers in the US Army before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which accentuates the solemnity of an otherwise romantic comedy. Like the original titular character, Cy is adept at using her words (in this case via blog entries) to provoke her enemies and to help the tongue tied soldier Cole woo Rose, a local painter with whom she is also enamored. The antagonist of this adaptation presents itself in the form of Dulac, a high ranking Army officer with a belligerent history with Cy. The overall narrative follows the same story structure of the source material, with unexpected twists at its conclusion.

The set design is minimalist, contained mainly in the general store Cy owns and runs, with the requisite props that entails. The cast of five was amazing, most notably Catherine Curtin as Cy, who balanced her rage at Dulac for disregarding the mistreatment of female soldiers within the Army system with her awkwardness with Rose whenever Rose talks of Cole, as well as her maternal care for Sammy, a young man wishing to escape the small town world in search for a purpose. Also notable was Chris Ceraso as Dulac (parallel to the Comte de Guiche in the original play), whose adherence to duty provides added fuel to Cy’s cause; his interest in Rose comes across subtly and is all the more menacing in context to the action that occurs towards the end of the play.

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There wasn’t so much of a stage door experience, this time ‘round, as there was a talkback moderated by Rachel Reiner, managing director of the Resonance Ensemble with Eric Parness, the play’s director, and the cast after the performance (unbeknownst to me) discussing the origins of the play, its journey from workshop to stage, and the issues imparted within the play. The director and the managing director were alumni of Brandeis University, and there were many other Brandeis alumni in attendance; after the talkback many of the alumni gathered onstage, and I didn’t feel like intruding on that (or waiting afterwards, not knowing how long that would last).

The transformation of a French romantic comedy into an American drama deserves another life after this run, which ends today (February 28, 2016), having performed in rep with Cyrano all this month (yesterday was my only opportunity to see the show). It’s a different yet familiar take on the story of an outspoken yet insecure soldier yearning to find love and acceptance despite the self-perceived obstacles that stand in the way.

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