By Hazen Cuyler
An avid art audience, of any form, searches for the new. A resounding voice, never before experienced, expressing the evolved emotional lives of people today. Independent Study by Ben Gassman isn’t exactly there, but it manages enough innovative elements to make meaningful theatre. It’s running through November 17 at The Tank and you should see it to break from the traditional. This sharp new production aggressively attacking our digital lives is guaranteed to leave you unsettled the next time you find yourself scrolling.
GG is a first generation college student. She lives with her brother, Bozo, within a mostly parentless household. Her mentor and former teacher, Prof Mel, is a forward thinking, liberal academic. Both of these women have a brother with extremist viewpoints. Scattered within its loose plot, is a “Hate Chorus” – a chorus for the digital age, drawing connections between hate-fueled digital rhetoric and our hate-filled real world actions.
Emotionally charged and violent, the Hate Chorus emphasizes our anxiety-ridden relationship to technology. In one instance, they crescendo by throwing rocks through GG’s window. In separate instance, Finn Kilgore, a talented chorus member, plays a newscaster. Nuanced character work aside, he illuminates how our limited attention span responds to complex information. When details require effort to continue listening and our interest fades, we laugh as his voice mumbles complex information down to nothing.
Theatre audiences rarely witness sibling relationships composed with such honesty as the powerful scenes between GG (Andrea Negrete) and her brother (Alphonzo Walker Jr.). Their scenes comprise the finest, most subtle work of the play. Ms. Negrete captures a youthful longing, struggling to fit lessons from school into real world relationships. Searching for new ideas, puzzle pieces, solutions and YouTube prophets, we may only spectate as her frustrations spiral into a kind of youthful madness. Mr. Walker Jr. as GG’s brother, Bozo, inhabits a young man built on love, disparaged from living within a discriminatory culture. Ms. Negrete and Mr. Walker Jr. hold within their eyes a balanced kinship of respect, love and competition. They reveal a brand of affection only possible from developing together in life.
An-lin Dauber’s evocative set design provides a sharp, modern palate. Rope lights the color of our blue-lit phones bolt across the stage, splitting it comfortably into multiple environments. Bare, speakeasy lightbulbs dangle above the playing area. Fabric swatch patterns cover flat seating. Transparent cloth fastened to a canvas frame, hangs askew upstage. Rehearsal cubes sit alongside a discarded white roller chair. Everything seems trash picked yet clean, lived in and purposeful. Even before houselights fade, you’re enlivened, imagining how everything works.
Virtuoso director, Ran Xia, conducts this cutting edge collage. Bold choices hammer the play’s ideas into our consciousness. From the moment Independent Study begins, we are bombarded by stimuli. Relentlessly shaken from a mixture of violent and tenderness. Jarred and interrupted by a Hateful Chorus, denouncing our digitized social society. In one moment, members of the Hate Chorus form the shape and features of a speaking, flickering television screen. While small in scale, its application is complex and will remain a piece of theatre magic I’ll never forget
By now, you may have asked the question, “What exactly happens in this play?” That question pinpoints where the production veers a bit off course. Relationships between GG and her brother and her Professor are clear and revealing. We witness inspired and angsty private meetings, complicated and rich home life, and along the way, the Hate Chorus provides a context to this emotional outside world. But the actual storyline is difficult to identify and we never get a real sense of an arch. That lack of necessary structure forces the audience into unnecessary effort, depreciating a powerful message.
And so we’re here at The Tank. A home where artists and audiences search for something new. Something that’s never been made before. Where innovation cracks open structures of the old to breathe life in the now. Thousands of artists come here, to The Tank, to reach into the darkness of the unknown, blindly grasping for light. Even at the risk of that light being artificial. Without collections of people creating new and bold and unapologetic work, like those who created Independent Study, we are lost. We are lost to time and we are doomed to the same. Doomed to the same cozy bubble feeds on repeat. Doomed to the same hateful pundit soundbites. Lost in a maze of the same sickening rhetoric and trolling and hurting. To break this system, we need plays like Mr. Gassman’s Independent Study to create a new chorus. Interrupting our structured conversations. Unapologetic in their efforts to create a more bold, understanding, peaceful world.
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