Thursday, October 25, 2018



In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is…

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Yogi Berra

L-R SASCHA COLE (Isabelle) & AUDREY DWYER (Lee) - photo by Jim Ryce

Director Esther Jun describes Norman Yeung’s play Theory as “a stylish old fashioned thriller that [taps] into contemporary neuroses.” What Jun refers to as stylish, with a gradual build toward psychological thriller, becomes lightly, yet engagingly, bogged down by - in stage practice - theory…Well, that was a mouthful and a half. 

As a very engaging yet frequently wordy play that ultimately cannot - and should not - try to escape its own longwinded discourse (it is about theory after all) the overall effect becomes a frequently dizzying and extremely entertaining interrogation of the ways in which academia can become a hotbed for practical and theoretical implosion.

Replete with an extremely elegant and effective set design by Joe Pagnan, alongside impressive, fully integrated projections by Cameron Davis, the stage acts as the living space for Isabelle and Lee, as well as a lecture theatre and office for the classroom scenes where Lee encounters the beginnings of a very threatening & challenging form of pedagogical interaction. The simple elegance and fast paced changeability of set pieces, crucial to the design, gives the action an incredible ease and flow that alleviates some of the wordiness and allows for menacing physicality to take place as suspense unfolds. 

As a tightly written script about an environment - academia - that depends upon verbal and visual communication Theory becomes an eloquent endgame of word and action. How language is used and how much freedom it affords us has been examined by the playwright in a complex and terrifying way that speaks indirectly to current events that have individuals being removed - and rightfully so - from positions of power when their “lousy language” (to quote/cite Anna Deveare Smith’s transcription from 'Fires In The Mirror') demeans and terrorizes historically oppressed groups. The potential violence that unfolds throughout Theory is a frightening reminder that we live in a global environment where sexual assault, murder, death threats, and potential bombings seem to be delivered, debated, and broadcast on a near daily basis.

Isabelle and Lee, threatened by racism and homophobia, surrounded by students who display levels of empowerment and victimization by their peers, are complicated characters who certainly garner great empathy from spectators. And yet there is no real sense of the kind of class consciousness or privilege that their respective positions might afford them as tenured and tenure track individuals. When Lee encourages Isabelle to play the tenure game that she so successfully won, so they can start a family, Isabelle rebels, by degree. Any audience member (if you can afford a ticket) familiar with an income consistently hovering around the poverty line might feel compelled to interact with Lee’s aspirational outburst by saying “Try living on one big salary why don’t ya!” Tenure and tenure track positions can triple and quadruple (and beyond) economic conditions once compared to people identifying as poor. But there is no real class analysis in a play where one might expect some astute economic awareness to reside. This points to one surprising weakness in the script. It is not quite long enough. Two fifty minute acts with an intermission, instead of one ninety minute go at it, and a slice of mid script gripping suspense and complex privilege pondering could raise the stakes in a thriller that is not quite thrilling enough. One may leave the play with a fearful sense of what could happen, but it is all a bit too gradual and a bit too discursive. Like Hitchcock without the birds actually flying in and doing what their ominous  looming flocks portend. 

But there are some truly scary scenes where one is on the edge of their lecture hall seat as Esther Jun’s effectively harrowing blocking has student and teacher in a kind of verbal and physical sparring. And the visual violence of onscreen hate speech taking place on an unmoderated online message board is a horrifying sight to behold, especially in the wake of a city shocked by the presence of a mayoral candidate with white supremacist affiliations. 

The four younger actors are outstanding and a formidable match for the three other members of the ensemble. Breakneck conversational pacing mixed with brief snippets of lecture hall scenes make for a diverse dramaturgical structure. A brief standout performance by Fabrizio Filippo as a concerned supervising academic creates an authentic sense of the authoritative liberal straight looking straight acting white male alternately mansplaining and doing damage control around the role of the academy in a troubled student’s life. Filippo injects vocal nuance and detailed physical mannerisms into a scene where the institutional pressures of making it all work for the good of the university become infuriatingly transparent, stylish, and maddeningly gestural. 

Sascha Cole as Isabelle, the threatened tenure track film studies Prof, gives a layered performance that quickly and effectively moves from composed and self-assured to a kind of empowered fragility when the threat of violence actually appears. Audrey Dwyer’s Lee is a strong varied portrait of a woman who has fought hard for her position of power and knows how to succeed within a game of academic cat and mouse. The rapport between the two women alternates between warm romantic interactions and bouts of mild to hot hostility when their lifestyle and marital/familial hopes are challenged by their differing teaching methods and their diverse subject positions regarding race and sexual identity.

The recipient of the Herman Voaden National Playwriting Award, Yeung’s script has had a long journey from developmental productions (Summerworks) to the Alumnae Theatre Company’s FireWorks Festival, and Rumble Theatre’s Tremble Festival. The current Tarragon run is the premiere professional production. 

In practice, Theory is definitely worth seeing. In theory, it is a densely written, challenging piece of theatre that is being given a wonderfully entertaining and thought provoking production for anyone interested in the frequently enlightening, often inflammatory interactions between - yes - theory and practice.

THEORY runs at the 
Tarragon Theatre Extraspace 
until November 25th

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