Omar Sangare's Dialogue One Theatre Festival is one of the high points of the academic year at Williams. Dedicated to the demanding art of solo theater, it gives locals an opportunity to see some of the best professionals from around the world, as well as some exceptionally successful undergraduate efforts. Williams drama students benefit from contact with the visitors. In fact this year John Clancy, an Obie Award winner and founding director of the New York Fringe Festival, taught a workshop at the college. Now in its second year, the festival attracted visitors from out of town and filled the '62 Center's CentreStage close to capacity. It is traditional in solo theater festivals and fringe festivals to subject the performances to a committee of judges, who present awards in various categories.
Four students were given the assignment of writing and performing portraits of historical figures or known living people. In this spirit "Portrait Gallery" began with a tableau vivant with the students representing their characters standing behind picture frames. Of these only one is a living person, Meredith Nelson's Britney Spears. Oliver Reed, played by Andrei Baiu, died of a heart attack in 1999. Sylvia Plath, the subject of Lexie Hunt's "Integration," committed suicide in 1963, and Seretse Khama, the founding father of democracy in Botswana, died of cancer in 1980, while holding office as President. In the lives of the first three the addiction to various intoxicants played a significant role, and these figure prominently in the performances. Seretse Khama, a distinguished African statesman, encountered strong resistance and public criticism because of his marriage to a white woman, and this was the crux of Leungo Donald Molosi's energetic character study, which in fact won the award for the best student work. Molosi, dressed in a colorful sports jacket, was in constant motion, establishing a far-ranging space from back to front stage. Punctuating his powerful rant against the opponents of his interracial marriage with outbursts in Setswana, Molosi gave a sympathetic portrait of this important historical figure, to whom he is in fact related. Meredith Nelson could also point to a close personal connection with her character. Britney Spears, she observed, was an adolescent fixation for her, and her performance was a way of putting this fascination to rest. Through much of it, Britney is performing herself, making a glamorous entrance, synching one of her songs, and rehearsing an interview with Oprah, while her own private misery burst through the cracks. Andrei Baiu, a native of Bucharest, portrayed the actor Oliver Reed as a dipsomaniac brooding on his failures in life. His moody script and acting were most impressive. Using only quotations from Plath's works, Lexie Hunt plays the poet as a recluse hovering on the brink of a total disintegration of her personality. Confined to her darkened flat and dressed in a nightgown and slippers, her Plath plays nostalgic jazz and laments her growing alienation. There was fine work in all four portraits, all of which reflected the intensity of Professor Sangare's approach to theater.
The three professional performances were equally excellent. All three were vividly imaginative, linguistically rich compositions, brilliantly acted with consummate refinement and professional discipline. John Clancy, who has recently been concentrating on writing, chose to entrust the performance of his "The Event" to actor Matt Olberg, with whom he has worked several times in the past. Mr. Olberg is a many-faceted actor, and this versatility is essential in carrying an hour-long performance on one's own, but he is also liberally endowed with the subtlest gift of all, the ability to behave and speak in an entirely natural, untheatrical way, which is what he did for the first fifteen minutes of "The Event." As we first get to know his character, an actor confieing with his audience about his profession, we see him as a relaxed, even rather bland young man, speaking straightforwardly and intimately about his craft and his experience of the theater. After that introduction, the actor's personality and his relationship to the stage fans out in different directions—manic, menacing, cynical, sarcastic—reaching a height of intensity it maintains through to the end. Clancy's play is essentially a brilliant, cerebral self-critique of theater, as if the art form itself had become as self-absorbed as the character. Since Olberg's entire appearance on the stage consists of memorized words written by another, any gesture in the direction of authenticity or sincerity is self-defeating. His character is left alone with his own artifice.
Of the many challenges of solo theater the most obvious is the need to hold the audience's attention with no more than the resources of a single solitary actor. More often than not, the solution will be to exploit one's own or one's actor's versatility, and to bring in multiple characters. As a seasoned practitioner, John Clancy decided to play it straight and to build his work from his single character, who, as an actor, is actually a non-character. By contrast, Tim Collins included forty in his "A Fire as Bright as Heaven," which he describes as "A forty character, comedic and political solo show that chronicles the past seven years of American upheaval, from 9/11 to the 2008 elections. From verbose anti-war protesters to vehement NRA members, from latte toting Republicans to overwhelmed Obama supporters, 'A Fire as Bright as Heaven' spans our recent and tumultuous history through opinion, empathy, and outrage." All the virtues of solo theater were there in abundance: the ability to mimic a variety of accents and mannerisms, both in speech and in gesture, trenchant observation of a variety of characters, the ability to transform oneself in seconds, and terrific energy. The play ran for 90 dense minutes, all filled with a vast quantity of behavioral and incidental detail, which captures the reality of the Bush Era. Seeing the play was like living through it in fast forward with the gift of translocation. It departed from personal experience only in the writer's ability to extend his experience far beyond that of the ordinary individual. In capturing this range of experience and point of view, Tim Collins' gifts as a playwright are perfectly match by his abilities as an actor. More than usual, one had the perception of the complexity of his achievement: his gathering knowledge and observation (for example he attended a vast NRA convention in St. Louis) processing it and putting it on paper, then working it into a performance and carrying it out on stage.
As impressive as Collins' achievement is as pure literature and performance, it has one more quality, the integrity and penetration of his understanding of this bizarre and discreditable period in American history. In this respect it is the most perceptive and the finest work of art yet to emerge from this collective fog, and the importance and power of its statement is presumably why it won the Dialogue One Award as the best professional work. Above all, Collins has an impressive grasp of how the dishonesty, corruption, and stupidity of the administration trickled down to the masses and created the sort of confusion, self-delusion, and fear which has enabled Americans sit passively at home while our precious freedoms are undermined, along with the country's reputation in the world. The media also play a role in this deterioration of discernment and judgment, providing a mixture of partisanship and doublespeak as examples to their audiences. Tim Collins has a definite point of view of his own, although the complexity of his treatment takes his message beyond propaganda. In fact it only came out without amibiguity as he took his curtain calls, flashing a prop from the final segment of the play, a clipboard with an Obama sticker adhering to its back. In the scene, the clipboard was held by a fraudulent Obama activist, who uses the pretense to gain admittance to the home of a sadly confused and alienated voter. This person's rant about his inert personal and political life proves all-too-revealing, and, as dismal a person as he is, we can sympathize with his anger as he throws the imposter out. There the Obama sticker develops ambivalent, even creepy associations. They vanished after the curtain, however, when Collins jauntily flashed the board, as if to say, "we made it!"
This made an impression on me, not least because it was an honest and thoroughly cogent realization of an idea I'd have dismissed out of hand. Disasters and atrocities make easy targets for the uninspired and the lazy, and I tired long ago of writers or artists claiming to have written the "post 9/11" novel, or installation, or play. In this case Tim Collins got it right, and for that reason, together with its purely dramatic qualities, 'A Fire as Bright as Heaven' is a genuinely important work.
Kymbali Craig closed the professional segment with "Male Gaze," in her words, "a solo hip-hop theater performance piece, inspired by the 1998 film documentary War Zone. In Kymbali’s performance we meet an variety of characters as she portrays young women, affected by the issue of consistent unwanted advances from men towards them, how it affects their wardrobe choices, lifestyle and daily routine: from the extremely sexy teen who addresses the issue of sexual abuse, to the free-spirited artistic b-girl just trying to get from point a to point b without the unwanted advances, to the thug girl hiding behind baggy jeans and a hoody to maintain her safety, to an afro-centric mother sista-girl in denial of domestic abuse, addresses the issue of woman hood to her teenage daughter who is a beacon of hope reclaiming her power of womanhood." Propelled by her internally generated rhythm Kymbali Craig moves almost seamlessly among a number of different characters, some old, some very young, each presenting a different angle on the uninvited male attention certain young women face, no matter how hard they try to avoid it. This particular facet of daily life casts a revealing light on life as a woman in general and on the social, familial, and economic factors that determine the roles young women are thrust into when they appear in public.
Kymbali Craig's rhythmic bounce molded the language of "Male Gaze," as much as her physical movement over the stage and the characters she brought to life with her colorful gestures, attitudes, and speech. In this she found a happy meeting point between music and language, and its beauty and fun carried through the entire production, whether she was driving at satire, poignant social criticism, or just high spirits. The Second Annual Dialogue One professional session ended with a splash.