Dimmed lights, hushed chatter, a spirited ambiance. Last Friday this was precisely what surrounded me as I settled in for Witness Theater’s 2022 Fall Showcase. Taking place in the Arellano Theater, the showcase would be featuring four student-written, produced and directed plays. I knew I’d be in for a ride.
It began with a bang. From its very first words, the opening play, directed by Rafael Stamillo and written by Timothy McShea, reeled me right in. A man, calling himself Poe (Jack Webster), yells with a very specific brand of insanity as a woman, Sophie (Cassidy Wauben), stumbles upon him. Soon she meets the man in charge, Eliot (Siddharth Ananth), and the situation begins to unveil itself. These men are not who we think they are, nor are they exactly who they think they are.
With a title like Eliot’s Madhouse of Poets, I thought I knew what I was getting into — but what ended up playing out rose spectacularly above those expectations. A brilliant British accent from the character Will (Aidan Alme) won’t soon be forgotten, and gags with props varying from a skull to a blue jay plushie added a delightful touch. Laughs sounded from all around as the play made light of the dangers of method acting — or perhaps, method writing.
The next play, intriguingly titled Bizarre Love Quadrangle, was written by Madison Epner and co-directed by Brianna Groch and Nyore Onovae. Set during finals season, the gist goes like this: Jasper (Ander Diez) tries to convince his girlfriend Natalie (Lily Wilson) to go on a double date. With some tongue-in-cheek bribery, he eventually succeeds. And so, across the quad come Jasper’s friend Morgan (Helene Apollon) and her girlfriend Miranda (Andrea Guillén).
As the two pairs meet, pandemonium immediately breaks out. They have their wires crossed — and in many more ways than one. Simply said, awkward has never been such an understatement. The breaking of the fourth wall was particularly enjoyable, and the horrors of interpersonal conflicts could not have been better illustrated. Interspersed moments of physical comedy added dynamism, while the grounded campus environment made it extra relatable.
On the flip side, the third play took quite a departure from reality. Co-directed by Angala Rajasegaran and Varen Talwar and written by John Liu, Scream Slay Replay opens on a much darker note. A psychopathic killer (Jeremiah Hadwin) roams a summer camp as two campers, Jennifer (Kirsten Choi) and Billy (Yona Levine), work out their next move. Trapped in a cabin together, they're evidently at odds, with the seemingly kind-hearted Jennifer facing scathing cruelties from Billy. Gradually the reasons behind this become clear, as does the exact nature of the said camp.
Initially what appears to be a horror concept takes a turn when mind-bending elements of science fiction come into play as the story progresses. There were moments of genuine shock, such as when the killer reveals himself, armed with a knife and an artfully created mask. The somewhat ambiguous ending, involving two kids (Daniel Wen and Harley Tran), twists everything on its head.
Before long we had arrived at the last play, In Midair. Directed by Guillén and written by Cassandra Mitsinikos, it takes place amid the world of a traveling circus troupe. Making an escape with a bag slung over her shoulder, Erin (Annie Radin) is caught by Thalia (Hannah Kosak). Thalia makes quick work of the situation, deducing that Erin is running away — again. We soon learn that both girls are trapeze artists, with Erin relatively new to the circus. She suffers from an imposter syndrome of sorts that Thalia helps put to rest in a candid, heartfelt conversation.
The performances were especially captivating, hitting the hardest when Erin reveals her vulnerabilities and the true reason she originally left home. Notably there was an impressive duality to Thalia’s character — she conveys an indomitable inner strength as a mentor to Erin, while concurrently managing to share her own insecurities truthfully and disarmingly. It was an unbelievable joy to watch these nuances play out.
The story ends with the blossoming beginnings of Thalia and Erin’s friendship, doubling as a heartening, hopeful note to close the showcase on as well. Boisterous applause greeted the actors as they came out to take their final bows. It was almost palpable how much heart went into every line of every play, as well as across lighting, sound, props, set and costume design.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Ananth, playing the titular character in Eliot’s Madhouse of Poets, detailed the weeks leading up to the showcase.
“The initial rehearsals took place twice every week and each session lasted for about an hour and a half. A week before show week, we had to let go of our scripts and start with more closed-book rehearsals,” he explained. “During the show week, we had to show up every day. We would first run through transitions from one play to another, along with fight calls before doing a full run of the show.”
In another interview, Epner, the writer of Bizarre Love Quadrangle, shared what it was like being on the other side of the stage, so to speak.
“Plays are my favorite form in which to write because there’s so much room for interpretation and interaction,” she said. “Seeing the different choices that the actors made — like voting during the fourth wall break on whether Miranda should break up with Morgan — made me so happy, because it showed me that the actors both understood my show and wanted to have fun with it.”
Needless to say, I left the show with more than a couple of the lines still resounding in my head. From lawn chairs to playing cards to peach rings, each of the plays contained a distinctive bit of every ingredient. But somehow they all undeniably fit like puzzle pieces, forming a cohesive yet diverse amalgamation of hilarity and emotionality. Walking off into the evening, I can only say I was struck again by the pure joy of the theater.
Varen Talwar is a member of Witness Theater and an Arts and Entertainment Editor for The News-Letter. He did not contribute to the reporting, writing or editing of this piece.