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Two Approches to Student Productions

March 10, 2008

I've spent the last couple of evenings experiencing Bay Area student productions. Having seen Mark Jackson's Don Juan on Thursday night at SF State, I checked out Sarah Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando by ACT's MFA students at the company's Zeum space yesterday. It's been a coup on the whole: two shows on two consecutive evenings and both of them pretty great. Don Juan is a terrific production, with lively performances, gob-smacking aesthetics and extraordinary writing and direction. (See last Friday's blog entry for more details.) Orlando, though not quite as visceral an experience, is compelling. The performances are honest and bracing, and director Ryan Rilette's mise-en-scene is bubbly and economical. Most importantly, the actors appear completely immersed in what they are doing and their passion is infectious.

Orlando is Ruhl's adaptation of the Woolf novel about a person who evolves over several centuries from a young man in the court of Elizabeth I to a woman living in the early 20th century. The story was most famously turned into a movie by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton in 1992.

Rilette's production features a minimalist aesthetic consisting of a bare-boards set, few props and spare lighting effects. Most of the costume changes happen on stage or to the sides with the actors half-hidden behind standard clothes rails. The show's most interesting conceit is its sound design. All the sound effects are created "radio" style by four actors sitting behind tables flanking the main central performance areas. Some of the effects are ingenious. My favorite is the sound of knives being sharpened to accompany the image of Orlando and the love of his life, Sasha, skating to London on an iced-over River Thames.

Ruhl's adaptation involves a lot of third person narration which tends to bog the action down in places, but in general I think she's done a great job of retaining the cheeky warmth and surreal timespan of Woolf's novel while creating a work that is undeniably theatrical.

Looking back at both shows that I've witnessed over the past couple of days, it appears to me that they represent two quite different approaches to staging student theatre. ACT seems to be focused on mounting plays as vehicles for showcasing the talents of the individual student performers. SF State, contrastingly, looks like it's mostly interested in creating crack theatrical experiences with a group of people who just happen to be students.

Rilette's production of Orlando provides the actors with ample opportunities to show off their various skills, from ensemble work and singing to Shakespearean verse and acting in drag. Some moments, like Dan Morrison's affecting performance of the death scene from Othello, feel integral to the action of the play. Others, like Tovah Suttle's lovely but inconsequential cabaret song in the middle of the story, seem rather gratuitous. Then there's the pre-performance "concert" in which members of the cast regale the waiting audience with their songs. Though enchanting, none of the musical items have anything to do with the play we're about to see.

I wonder if the "showcase" approach to student productions is the best way for MFA programs to display the skills of their graduands? Like Orlando, Don Juan demands multiple roles from some of the performers. Yet the play feels less self-consciously "performancy" because every moment of each performance is in service of something larger than the individual actors -- the play itself.

Perhaps this explains why, I wasn't as viscerally moved by the ACT MFA student production as I was by the SF State show? Then again, I'm a theatre critic not an agent scouting for talent in San Francisco this week. If I were, maybe I'd be more taken with the all-singing, all-skating ACT actors than the cast over at SF State who looked to me like they were putting on a play rather than auditioning for an agent. Who knows?


  • I went to Orlando entirely out of nonprofessional curiosity (we happen to be reading it in my book club, and I like Sarah Ruhl), and I wound up terribly impressed by it. Much better executed than the MFA Shaw production I saw there not long ago -- and a much better play than the last thing the pros did there, come to think of it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 10, 2008 at 3:00 PM  

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