Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 29, 2022

While 1,100 students were at the Athletic Center last Friday night -- presumably enjoying the free Pharcyde and Blackalicious concert -- a handful of devoted theater-goers paid a few bucks for the latest showcase from Witness Theatre. However, as with Spring Fair's curious decision to forego charging, Witness should not have requested a dime for the performance. In fact, Witness should have paid people $3 to watch the showcase.

Witness's final showcase of the year was anything but polished; in fact, these three short plays felt like workshops with the wrong talent and sub par script selection. Only a month ago, Witness delivered a series of uneven, but noteworthy short plays, including The Book of Morton and Militant Lesbians on Ice. Why these three plays? I demand an explanation.

I ask only as a concerned consumer of Hopkins theater. Spring Fair weekend is the time to shine for all the visitors to our campus and to really pull off impressive performances. It doesn't hurt to select student material from talented, future playwrights. Hell, all of this was at least in spirit last month, if not execution.

The showcase will forever be notorious for the promotion of the musical, Letters to Kurt, the highly touted event. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't necessarily expecting another Throat Culture AIM Musical or the caliber of The Secret Garden, but given that Witness has often excelled on a shoe-string budget (The Blue Cranberry Hour), I truly looked forward to Gillian Gower's "post-modernist, neo-impressionistic abstract interpretation of the original musical, Letters to Kurt." Whatever that meant, the possibilities were endless.

The title refers to open-ended letters to Kurt Cobain, written by one extremely banal young woman, Lia. Portrayed by Marina Koestler, Lia is the type of person without any discernible personality, suddenly finding herself in a not-so-twisted love triangle with her boyfriend Luke (Marshall Ross) and lesbian companion Morgan (Tegan Machnich). Gower employs all the clichZs of narcissistic angst, including references to Valium, unrequited love and morbid desires.

While Lia ponders her entangled relationships with Luke and Morgan, all three characters sing of their desires and fears. The musical numbers, unfortunately, push the theatrics and unconvincing characterizations further into troubled areas. Each song is merely rejected material from a better musical, including the Jonathan Larson-esque battle duet "Stay With That B--," in which Luke and Morgan express frustration and jealousy with each other in their pursuit of Lia.

As Morgan, Machnich is the best singer of the lot, but her voice is strained and unimpressive. Ross, while self-conscious of his acting abilities, as noted when his fans cheered at his every spoken word or sung lyric, mumbled through his performances. Koestler, as the depressive Lia, nearly put me to sleep with a voice hardly suited for any type of theater. I was forced to question whether they were intentionally awful singers, in light of the "neo-impressionistic abstract" program notes. Either way, everyone seemed particularly disinterested in the genuinely tired lyrics.

The next one-act fared somewhat better. Chinky Touley, written by Letters to Kurt's Marshall Ross, proves he is far more talented as a playwright and should leave the singing to professionals. In fact, one gets the impression he was dared to appear in the musical. Either way, this dramatic work manages to explore the utter banality of one neurotic Cathie, played by Elspeth Kursh. Cathie strolls into a random bar where she encounters the dispensable bar owner, Lady Eugenia (Nancy Beceira-Cordoba) and the apparitional regular, Chicky (Ryan Hopson). Cathie runs her mouth about the most random of New York clichZs, while craving attention from the disinterested Chicky. Along the way, nothing is particularly discovered, except Cathie's inability to remove herself from the center of her universe.

Kursh bravely played the stereotypical Cathie, and managed to reshape the character with her own particular personality. However, she delivered each monologue without any dramatic timing, preferring to speed through the performance as soon as humanly possible. Hopson doesn't do or say much, except struggle to control himself from laughing at the intentionally comedic Kursh. With very little actually happening, director Seth Carlson manages to keep the characters and the audience interested in the material with subtle blocking, although Hopson may or may not know how to actually dance. After a strong start, the play fizzles creatively, and as a workshop, I could see this scene improve drastically.

After a short intermission, the Witness crew enlivened things considerably with a party set featuring balloons, three tables and six cardboard cutouts of the cast members in The Late, Great Speed Date. Written by Marina Koestler, who like Ross, proves herself a far better writer than actress, the one-act injected life into the droll evening with a parody of awful reality date specials. The premise: three men and three women speed-date. After a brief ice-breaker conversation, the bell will ring, and everyone has to find a new partner. At the end of the show, only those interested in each other will exchange contact information.

Director Jessica Kajfasz employed pitch-perfect casting on all accounts, from the smarmy host Sam (Matt Reed) to the radical feminist Abra (Megan Hiorth). As each expressed his or her views on dating, Koestler's words are exceptionally funny, and the talented actors handled her script with ease. Hiorth was wonderfully formidable as the man-hater, while LisaCaitlin Perri endeared the audience to her portrayal of a pathetic cartographer, desperate for love. Meanwhile, Angelo Santiago played Cobra with a tongue-in-cheek masculinity and exceptional stage presence, but I recommend the actor work on his comedic timing.

The farce was enjoyable, but ended in what I like to call convenient chaos. When comedies realize they run out of steam or are not sure where to go next, writers tend to explode the situation with absurd pratfalls. Thankfully, after the initial convenient chaos, Koestler brings the play back full circle with a calm recap of the one-act, in confessional reality TV style. Sure, the play was hardly illuminating, and the stereotypes lost their edge by the end of the play, but after the first two one-acts, everything felt fresh and unabashed.

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