Meta-theatricality is like any other tool in the the toolbox. It lends itself to a certain set of tasks, but in the end, it can be used well or be wasted. In its worst iterations, theater groups and writers feel like they deserve a pat on the back just for being able to point out that their play is, in fact, a play.
The Bard’s Town Theatre’s continued flirtation with meta-theatricality has yielded some mixed results, but in “This is Not the Play,” they have hit the nail directly on the head.
“This is Not the Play” chronicles the writing process of black Playwright (Paula O. Lockhart) as she attempts to write white characters for a white audience. She has an open and ongoing dialogue with the characters she is creating, titled White Girl 1 (Beth Tantanella), White Girl 2 (Mandi Elkins Hutchins) and White Woman (Amy Steiger). Playwright’s inner critic also shows up in the form of Man (Matt McMillian).
This production is firing nearly perfectly on all levels — from the deft and thoughtful script from Chisa Hutchinson, to the direction from Jake Beamer, to the performances from every member of the five-person cast. Some better technical elements in the forms of props, special effects and sound design would have been nice, but their absence is not nearly enough of a detriment to derail this production.
It’s such a good production that it’s tempting to ignore the specifics and talk about the issues presented, which the work explicitly demands from the audience. The play offers a nuanced and complicated discussion of race, self image and empathy; a deconstruction of character types and tropes; and a hilarious inside look at the artistic process. This script is so dense, ideas that might be milked for an entire show are almost throwaways.
But what makes it all come together is that even though we know on multiple levels these characters are not real people, their struggles feel real. When they are in danger, we worry for them, when they seek to connect with each other, we cheer their successes and ache with their failures.
In short, we care. The deep thinking comes later.
Given the premise, one expects Lockhart’s Playwright will be the centerpiece, or possibly Tantanella as White Girl 1.
Tantanella leads the early action and is definitely “cute and quirky,” which the script unabashedly states and milks for comedic dividends. Hutchinson’s dialogue deconstructs the manic pixie dream-girl trope as easily as you would check Facebook while microwaving dinner, and Tantanella’s comedic timing is put to good use. She plays it all straight, with a good-natured smile on her face.
Tantanella drops manic pixie dream girl for outright sex kitten for a while, in one of the few missteps of the play. One of my biggest peeves with meta material is its tendency to try to have and eat its cheesecake.
“Gee, sexism is bad,” says this section of the play before quickly adding, “Now look at this sexy, scantily clad woman for 20 minutes!” For what it’s worth, Tantanella pulls off sexy as adroitly as she pulled off cute and quirky, and she gets some laughs out of the material.
Lockhart as Playwright seemed to be a pretty straightforward representation of Hutchinson, the actual playwright. The playwright makes Playwright get out out of the way and let the characters have the spotlight.
One can’t help but consider the fact that many of the questions and accusations hurled between those on stage are hurtful things the playwright has said to herself. Anyone with internal dialogue can feel that pain. Lockhart’s doing good work here, but she isn’t given a lot of opportunity to shine.
Man, who may as well be called The Man, is the least developed character, acting as an obvious antagonist and internal extension of the negative external messages of the capitalist patriarchy. McMillian is by turns smarmy, funny, condescending and frightening.
Steiger’s White Woman pulls an incredible amount of emotional weight out of her appearance late in the play. Can’t say much else without getting into strong spoiler territory, and while the play doesn’t need surprises to succeed, who doesn’t like a good plot twist?
White Girl 2 is the unlikely star of this production. She starts as a cliché and then demands to be more interesting. Like, literally demands, because meta. Hutchins is fabulous as White Girl 2; her sullen and snarky presence in the first act hardens into sharped edged pain and anger in the second act. She capably delivers some really upsetting material and manages to stay a character we care about, even when she’s saying things we are not comfortable hearing.
McMillian, Lockhart and Hutchins are all making their Bard’s Town debuts, and I hope to see them return.
Director Beamer is usually on stage at The Bard’s Town, and I’m generally a big fan of his comedic skills, but if “This is Not the Play” is indicative of his skill at helming a production, he needs to spend more time in the director’s chair. While a huge portion of this script’s success comes from the strength of the material, it’s easy to see a lot of places the work could have fallen flat. That the characters feel real and the stakes are grounded is no small feat in a play so heady, with so many levels of rhetorical statements and origami semiotics. No doubt a good bit of the credit belongs to Beamer.
Given the thickness of the rhetorical back and forth here, I do have to point out that this play is being helmed by a white director. The fact that he nails it doesn’t erase the irony, and I find myself trying to remember the last time I saw a black director given charge of a production at The Bard’s Town. The material demands we examine what roles on and offstage artists are given, and what that means to art, so to not ask this obvious question would be against the spirit of the play.
Nevertheless, I liked “This is Not the Play” so much, I’m strongly considering seeing it again.
“This is Not the Play” continues June 16-19 at The Bard’s Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. Tickets are $18, and all shows start at 7:30 p.m. The play clocks in at a brisk and breezy 75 minutes.