Experimental ‘Growing Born’ explores existential themes

By
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Last weekend’s performance of the Production Workshop’s play “Growing Born” was a compelling foray into experimental theater, showcasing the perils and rewards of creative risk-taking.

As a production in the theater of the absurd, the challenge to Danielle Kourtesis ’07, the play’s director, was to stage a performance that would powerfully evoke life’s irrational elements. To that end, Kourtesis employed an innovative, collaborative writing technique, in which four “peripatetic” playwrights composed the distinctly non-linear storyline of the play at designated locations and within allotted periods of time.

The result of the playwrights’ (Emily Drumsta ’06, Matt Kelly ’06, Krista Knight ’06 and Jen Silverman ’06) experimental collaboration was a script marked by intriguing character conflicts and imaginative poetic tropes. More than that, their “peripatetic” technique demonstrates the potential of multiple authorial voices to create compelling absurd theater.

Using a mixture of the mundane and the absurd, the play follows the lives of six ordinary people and a preternatural talking fetus (James Rutherford ’07) to explore the existential isolation of individuals who desire human connection in an irrational world. Joe (Lucian Cohen ’09) ignores his girlfriend, the pregnant Rita (Sarah Tolan-Mee ’07), for the passive pleasures of watching television. Across town, Lena (Tara Schuster ’08) rejects the love of her boyfriend Tim (Boaz Munro ’09). Meanwhile, Tim’s two older neighbors, Agnes (Afreen Akhter ’06) and Barbara (Bryn Gonzalez-Ellis ’09) reflect on the unfolding events.

While the males in the play remain mired in their loneliness, the female characters struggle to overcome the overwhelming emptiness of their existences. Rita and Lena each leave unhappy relationships to become inextricably bound together by Rita’s fetus. Through this well-conceived absurdist conceit, the fetus first enchants Lena by speaking to her and then connects Lena to Rita through its umbilical cord by entering Lena’s womb. The surreal event can be read as the birth of the growing love between the two women.

Just as Lena and Rita are joined by an umbilical cord, Agnes and Barbara are linked by a rope, a physical representation of their inextricable connection. Agnes becomes “light as air” when she is infused with steam that transforms her into a human kite, which Barbara holds onto by a rope. This elemental connection between Barbara’s heaviness and Agnes’ lightness reflects the theme of human connectedness in the play. It also recalls the union between Rita and Lena, as the former becomes lighter and the latter heavier through the bizarre transfer of the fetus.

Each of the female leads in the ensemble cast gives an excellent and deeply nuanced performance. Akher and Gonzalez-Ellis, as the two older women, are a comedic force that drives the action of the play. Schuster, as the nihilistic Lena, uses dark humor effectively. And Tolan-Mee gives a striking performance of a woman who strives to provide meaning even to those who reject her.

While the men in the play, particularly Munro and Andrew Evans ’09 as the Speedo-clad swim instructor, provide humorous episodes, the script does not develop its male characters as fully as it should. This is a pity, for the play would have been even more successful if its script had further explored the existential isolation of its male characters against the backdrop of its feminist themes. In particular, Joe’s voice is excluded – the psychological motivations that cause him to reject Rita’s love and then attempt to selflessly regain it are never resolved. The ever-opinionated fetus, excellently performed by Rutherford, even caustically remarks that Joe is superfluous to the character-driven action of the play.

There are also times when the play devolves from the authentically absurd into the merely preposterous, as in the abstract dance sequences in which the elderly Agnes is overcome by ridiculous erotic impulses. Given the play’s remarkably compressed three-week production schedule, however, such flaws are understandable.

Though the play is peppered with occasional editing lapses of this sort, they do not detract from its overall success. Ultimately, “Growing Born” is a surreal and intriguing experience in the theatre of the absurd.

There is another performance sche-duled for tonight at 8 p.m. at PW.