Posted by Danny Graugnard
Middletown made me laugh, but it also creeped me out. It made me a little sad, too. And those are the reasons why I loved every minute of it.
From the minute the public speaker, played by the ebullient Peter Johnston '14, appeared from the darkness of the stage I was engrossed and eager to see more of the absurdity that was surely to unfold from this sharply dressed man's presence. Unexpectedly, the fourth wall was broken which created an uncomfortable intimacy in almost every scene that proceeded it. We have the Black Box Theater to thank for it's immersive nature.
Director Dan Shure '14 said, "Having the production done in this particular space brings these characters and ideas into focus in a intimate way. The play features some direct address and contemplation on theater as a medium, so having the audience be so close together and doing it in a 3/4 round set up intensifies the theatricality of the play and forces the audience to closer examine what it is to be an audience member."
Indeed, the Black Box put me in the unique position of being close to the action on stage, as I sat stage right. I was surprised, shocked even, to find myself reacting to the actors and their behaviors. I leaned in as the librarian tried to show us the contents of the book she was reading from a few feet away. The flashlight from the cop shone on my face for a brief moment while it lingered on another audience member's face for a moment after, which made me sympathize with his growing discomfort. It was these kinds of moments when I felt involved in Middletown's dark, tense atmosphere that shockingly squeezed a few good laughs from me. One can't help but wonder how it manages to do that without making the humor feel out of place or awkward, given how disturbing the dialogue can be.
The dialogue is the most peculiar quality of Middletown; the short, vague language implants suffocating tension and dark undertones, found in-between the lines of dialogue. These characters that use this as a vehicle for inducing this tension have an astonishing ability to convey the little aspects of human nature through short, "sweet" dialogue. You don't need to look further than the interactions between Mrs. Swanson, played by Lily Donahue '15, and John Dodge, played by Zac Uslianer '14, for a more perfect example.
John Dodge is quick to criticize himself, "Just years of stuff. Sort of a metaphor for, yeah, no-just years of stuff, gunk... Whoah. I stood up too quick. My whole life, I don't think I ever stood up at the right speed. All life long, John Dodge in the wrong. 'All life long,' wow, that's hard to say."
Mrs. Swanson struggles to keep up with John's focus on himself, while interjecting her own presence, "Well, what am I supposed to say?... Are you alright?... We haven't known each other long, but do I seem different?" The dynamics between these are the essence of human nature in Middletown, and it's frankly disturbing, yet reflective.
A few simple words make a lot of thought provoking conclusions. At times, it was blunt and morbid. Other times, it was cheerful and light.
"Good for you, dear," said the genteel librarian, played by Alexia Zarras '14. She maintains her cheery energy, "I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.' Let me just find the form." The morbidity in her dialogue is sandwiched with gracious mannerism, creating a jarring yet interesting syntax.
The production was also aesthetically delightful. I was quite impressed with the sound design in Middletown, which created an atmosphere that suited the tension and dark undertones of the play, but at the same time was never abrupt or distracting. The sound of crickets and wind really stood out during scenes that took place at night amidst that horrifying tension. The space scene was the centerpiece of the play aesthetically, as the lights projected the beautiful cosmos on the background and the sounds of the spaceship created a beautiful scene to watch. All which for a moment, helped disillusion the fact that we were in Black Box.
Will Eno's desire is to challenge us to face the deepest truths of human nature and expose the anxieties that we feel when we interact with each other, but acknowledge the fact that we do so for the sake of connecting with others. Middletown certainly challenged my perspective on everyday life with everyday people, be it a mechanic, a librarian, or a doctor. I will say that one may find it useful to maintain an open mind when experiencing Middletown. The play may be hard to digest for those of us who strive to find concrete meaning behind dialogue, because there isn't always an exact intended meaning to grasp in Middletown. In other words, if you prefer Mary Poppins over something that will actually make you ponder and challenge you on the human condition, then this play isn't for you. Nonetheless, I still encourage the typical Broadway enthusiast (tourist) to catch a production of Middletown for the sake of trying something new instead of watching Wicked for the third time. It's more about the dialogue and the way you interpret it yourself rather than simply watching the performance. That isn't to say the stage dictions weren't just as thought provoking as the dialogue. For example, it was quite fascinating to watch the landscaper, played by Xavier Hatten '14, pile rocks on top of the "Emergency" sign in a particular order, which may symbolize the audiences' struggle to find an understanding of the events that are transpiring from the experience.
By Will Eno; directed by Daniel Shure '14; costume design by Lena Wellhoefer '14; lighting design by Mark A. Baird; sound design by Daniel Shure '14; stage manger, Gabrielle Nieporent '14