As a crowd of around 30 students tentatively stepped into the SDS Room of the Mattin Center on Sept. 15, they encountered a sparse ring of black plastic chairs and white lamps. The audience members filing into the circle of seats had gathered to watch Vacation, a play by Hopkins junior Michael Feder.
As soon as the audience was seated, the bright overhead lights illuminated the stage, and the play’s two protagonists, a married couple Jerome and Margaret, entered the center of the circle.
The scene begins with Jerome packing a suitcase, clearly anxious about the trip the couple is about to embark on. He yells to Margaret to bring him another suitcase so he will not be scrutinized for bringing the one he has already packed.
From this odd, yet intriguing starting point, audience members went on to witness a tense scene of a couple dealing with loss and insecurity while also trying to care for one another.
Even though we are not provided with many details about their past, we do know that Jerome and Margaret lost a child after they consumed expired food. This creates tension as Margaret cries to Jerome about all the expired food she has had to throw out and as they both look toward an uncertain future after such a dramatic loss.
Despite its relatively short run-time of around 20 minutes, the play was able to convey a range of emotions and themes that, at times, conflicted with one another. There are several climaxes throughout, with one of the characters making a bold, desperate claim or screaming in frustration.
By the end, there is no clear victor or one character who is more sympathetic than the other, just two flawed individuals bearing the weight of their past and grappling to understand what the future holds.
Feder, who wrote, directed and produced the play, explained his inspiration in an email to The News-Letter.
“I had been interested in minimalist writing since I picked up the SALINGER biography that came out a couple years ago. For me, I was a little bit tired of seeing theatre that required complex sets, or overly poetic dialogue, instead of psychological realism,” he wrote. “The main questions of the play revolve around communication, especially how we communicate that which hurts us.”
The composition of the set, with the actors enclosed in a circle and sometimes standing in between audience members, heightened the emotional tension of the performance. Feder described his goal in crafting this minimalist, circular set.
“In this play, Jerome and Margaret talk about everything they can to avoid talking about what’s staring them in the face,” he wrote. “Putting the play in the round emphasized this point. Because they could not really exit (due to all the chairs) all they could do was circle around each other. For me, good drama relies much more on what isn’t said than what is.”
Both actors completely embodied their roles as partners in a strained, storied relationship. Richard Johnson, who took on his first acting role as Jerome, brings nuance to a character who is at once deeply insecure, angry, considerate and lost.
Similarly, Margaret, played by Mabelle Fomundam, releases a range of emotions in a limited time-frame, from fear to desperation to compassion to playfulness.
Fomundam, an alumnus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a professional writer and performer who studied theater in college. Both Fomundam and Johnson were cast after an open casting call held this summer.
“I’ve gotten to this point where I’ve found that if I try to impress certain ideas or themes on the audience it will only make them (and me) nauseous. If there’s anything that I want them to take away, it’s a care and understanding of the characters as they are in that drama. That’s my job at the end of the day: to make you care,” Feder wrote.
Feder elaborated on the play’s two characters.
“Neither of these characters want what is happening to them, but both are somewhat guilty for it happening. There’s no good guy or bad guy. For me that’s good drama,” he wrote.
Vacation is the second play for the Tentative Digital Theatre Company, a theater group formed this summer by Feder and junior David Gumino.
After the Hopkins administration denied them funding for a theater group, the two decided to form their own independent group that could produce shows outside of the normal constraints of Hopkins theater.
“Of course, the administration doesn’t really care that much about culture on campus, as it doesn’t really help as much in the rankings as other things, and it was essentially a no-go from the moment we walked in with the idea,” Feder wrote.
He also explained why they ultimately decided to form an independent theatre group.
“Because of the frigid response we were receiving, we decided to make an independent theatre group that would operate outside of the constraints of a traditional student theatre group,” he wrote.
Instead of performing in Homewood facilities, they decided to put on their first show in the JHU-MICA Film Centre soundstage. This first show, You’re in Trouble and So is the Neighborhood was written by junior Sarina Redzinski and directed by senior Emily Su, who is also Tentative’s secretary.
In addition to a live performance, You’re in Trouble also included a digital component and was recorded over a series of days.
In terms of the future for Tentative, Feder hopes to continue establishing its role as an independent haven for Hopkins artists.
“We are currently working on a more permanent solution to finding rehearsal space and funding for our group,” he wrote. “We want to continue to release live as well as digital content in a range of genres, including theatre, music, dance, poetry and art. We want to create a space where artists can thrive at Hopkins, a space that is desperately needed.”