Friday, June 7, 2019

Review of "Actually"

In a way, the play Actually is cheating.  The show, which deals with the ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter of sexual consent on college campuses, spends a great deal of time providing an extensive backstory of the two protagonists.  The scenarios, while multifaceted and psychologically thought-provoking, providing audience members with plenty of information to process, make for good theater, but would have little relevance at an actual campus hearing on the charges.  The impression playwright Anna Ziegler gives is just the opposite--that all the occurrences on stage are important in determining the central question of consensual sex.

The focus of Actually is on two incoming Princeton University freshman—Tom, a handsome, self-confident African-American male who has a way with the women and Amber, a pretty, somewhat self-deprecating, Jewish female.  After a couple of meet-ups they attend a campus party, where they both become extremely drunk, and head back to Tom’s residence hall for a sexual encounter.  The next morning, neither remembers exactly what happened, but soon Amber is talking about the escapade as a rape and not a consensual fling.  From there, there are brief snippets of scenes with unseen Deans and faculty representatives intermixed with pithy monologues about the night’s events.  In the end, nothing is resolved, letting the audience come up with their own judgement.

What makes this issue so confounding for all parties is who to believe with very little outright evidence or witnesses.  Again, most of what is presented in Actually would not be available to a University hearing panel.  What the play does get right, in fleeting glimpses, is the sometimes free-wheeling and undisciplined nature of a campus hearing with poorly trained campus personnel deciding life-changing charges.  It would have been interesting if Ms. Ziegler would have spent more time commenting on the administrative process.

The play is structured as a combination of the two characters interacting and making direct comments, speeches, and pleadings in the direction of the audience.  It is not that the audience is being acknowledged.  Instead, these asides and digressions have the feel of an accuser and accused making their case, presenting their version of the truth.

Ronald Emile, who plays Tom and Arielle Siegel, who portrays Amber, are both very good and convincing as two University Frosh somewhat over their heads.  They produce a realistic sense of empathy for their situation.  When need be they are playful, forceful, vulnerable and sexy. 

Director Taneisha Duggan shows restraint and compassion.  She adroitly teases out each character’s personal history and circumstances to present well-defined portraits of two undergraduates coming together for a fateful night.  Ms. Duggan adeptly utilizes the empty-laden stage to create a fullness to the production.  She seamlessly alternates the action from character interaction to character orations to the audience.

Jean Kim’s scenic design of highly polished steps leading to the empty stage gives the set the feel of a campus lecture hall or classroom.  Adding a screen at the back of the stage, allowing the characters to be occasionally portrayed in silhouette, adds to the sometimes shrouded nature of this type of episode.

Amith A. Chandrashaker’s lighting design, with colored hues and bright, intense spotlights, contributes to the under-the-microscope complexion of the play.

Actually, a challenging and provocative work that, nonetheless, only “actually” skims the surface of the subject of consensual sex on college campuses.

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