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Daniella Ignacio

In Theory at Mosaic Theater freedom of speech rings true

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

If you were given free rein to say whatever you want about anything you want…how far would you go? And if you were the moderator of that kind of environment, at what point would you interfere? That’s what Norman Yeung explores in Theory, making its American debut at Mosaic Theater Company.

The play was originally written in Canada in 2009, but this story about freedom of speech seamlessly fits in with the culture of American college campuses today – especially the liberal arts universities of D.C. that profess freedom of speech, yet have professors and students who can be hypocritical when people are allowed to give their opinions. It succeeds as a cautionary tale, raising questions of empathy, complicity and the very extreme ends of the political spectrum.

When Isabelle (Musa Gurnis), a tenure-track film studies professor decides to create an unmoderated discussion board for her class, she aims to rile her students up and get them to dismantle the patriarchy, question authority and democratize their studies of the film canon. However, when the posts and videos on the board start to get questionable, offensive, downright abusive, life-threatening and invasive of Isabelle’s privacy, she becomes increasingly paranoid. She must decide if she should intervene, let the assignment play out, or shut down the board. All the while, her students, her wife and the dean of students challenge her.

The story is difficult to take seriously until Isabelle begins to go down the path of obsession. It becomes clear that there’s something else going on here – that it’s a thriller and not just your typical “hot take” on freedom of speech. In the beginning, Isabelle seems like a caricature of a professor, a satire on how professors who profess “freedom of speech” have no idea what they’re talking about. The way that Gurnis carries herself and speaks is so declaratory and self-important sounding that it’s no wonder that her students are resistant. One sitcom-like exchange between her and her students:

“Everything’s allowed here,” she proclaims.

“That’s a terrible idea,” one of her students responds.

Until the audience sees Isabelle’s relationship with her wife and understands the dynamics within their interracial marriage, it’s unclear who Isabelle is. Once this relationship begins to play out, you start to understand where she’s coming from and how much this means to her: the idea of giving these students the freedom to think, speak and share their voice when they may never have gotten to share their voice before. Gurnis portrays Isabelle’s idealism with fervent passion and by the dark, intense culmination of it all, succeeds in playing out these emotions in an absolutely captivating, gut-wrenching way.

Andrea Harris Smith plays Isabelle’s wife, Lee, in a way that makes her one of the most human characters of the play. Lee is a black tenured professor and author who’s heard her share of racialized hate speech, and Smith plays this character with just the right mix of coolness and firmness. She’s there for Isabelle at the beginning of the project, but becomes increasingly upset with Isabelle as she refuses to take down extremely offensive comments that began when Isabelle screens clips from “Birth of a Nation.”

The four students that Isabelle is drawn to the most, Josh Adams as Richard, Benairen Kane as Davinder, Camilo Linares as Jorge and Tyasia Velines as Safina, provide youthful voices who challenge Isabelle’s opportunity to challenge authority, which is an interesting dichotomy. They grow and learn to speak their minds in different ways. Some push the envelope a bit too far, like Jorge, and others, like Safina, learn to open their minds and think about films they initially did not want to even think about. Adams takes a star turn towards the end that sent chills down my spine.

A simple set (Daniel Ettinger) gives just enough specifics to establish all three main settings: the classroom, the living room of Isabelle and Lee’s house and Isabelle’s office. The stage is filled with accents of light greens on the chairs, the couch and panel walls, with a splash of orange in Isabelle’s office, as well, to give the illusion of warmth and openness.

The lighting design (Brittany Shemuga) supports this, illuminating the set with five lampshades with singular light bulbs hanging above, creating the constant feeling that they’re in the classroom. One particular lighting scheme that stands out is in the scene in which Isabelle plays one of her most contested film selections from start to finish, as Isabelle stands in a very dark stage with light only on her showing her paranoia.

Dylan Uremovic’s projection design reflects the dizzying, overwhelming effect of technology on the lives of Isabelle and her students; the films seep over from the classroom into Isabelle’s personal life, and display the toll that it takes on her. At one point, as Isabelle texts one of her students, a Bitmoji version of the student’s head pops up, which displays her unrealistic view of what she thinks the students are like.

Another level of anonymity and eerie thrill is added through the sound design (David Lamont Wilson.) As the posts are projected, different voices of the students read off those posts, line by line. You can never tell who is truly who or if they’re reading lines they actually posted. In between scenes, the techno music allows the audience to reflect on the events that have just transpired and adds to the dark vibe.

As a college student of color who is studying media, I highly recommend catching this production, especially to other young people who are having conversations like the ones in this production every day. Theory is a welcome addition to Mosaic’s Season of Awakenings. Prepare to be awakened and shocked and, in Safina’s words, “wake up to the fact that this world sucks – so thank you.”

How Matthew McGee created new, more terrifying Audrey IIs for Little Shop of Horrors

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

In a season with high profile productions of Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and across the country,  the DMV is getting its own taste of the Alan Menken sci-fi musical theatre classic this October, with a new twist. Little Shop of Horrors at Constellation Theatre Company may be in a small space, but they’re doing big things, especially with its innovative puppet design by the intrepid puppet designer/actor Matthew McGee. The four pods – designated as Pods One, Two, Three and Four – display the terrifying development of a plant into an alien-like monster.

As the puppets are moved around the space and adjusted to be in the right place for a photo call, McGee speaks fondly of them, calling each of the four pods “this guy” like an old friend throughout the interview. McGee said that as a son of puppeteers, who joined them as they toured around California doing shadow puppet shows at elementary schools, puppetry is a pivotal part of his life.

“I like to tell people I was raised by puppets because I’ve been exposed to puppetry my whole life,” said McGee. “Growing up with it, going to festivals in the summertime, taking workshops and learning about puppetry…over the years, I just started tinkering with it and learning more by experience.”

McGee’s recent projects include designing puppets for The Lion King, Jr. in Alexandria, Minnesota’s Andrea Theatre and My Father’s Dragon at Synetic Theater last winter, in addition to his own short film puppet theatre pieces.

He believes in the power of making the impossible happen through puppetry in theatre.

“I’m a big advocate of incorporating puppetry for theatre because it is, in my opinion, the closest thing to magic that you can get on stage besides doing actual magic,” he said. “You can go to the movies and get CGI and special effects, but to see a piece of live theatre and have it be just as fantastical as something you could see in a movie, that excites me. If you can get people to go ‘Whoah! What am I seeing?’ [and] if they think they’re seeing the impossible, that’s magic and that’s what I live for.”

McGee’s original inspiration for the puppets came from his love of the original Little Shop movie, which he said has some of the best puppetry in a movie that he’s seen. He wanted to bring the life, articulation and believability of the original Jim Henson puppets into this production, while also expanding upon the possibilities for making the puppets easy to maneuver yet still terrifying and progressively alien-like. He called the process a “primarily solo undertaking of monstrous proportions,” which started in August.

Oftentimes, with the bigger Pods Three (which sings “Get It”) and Four (the final man-eating version of Audrey II), the puppeteer has to sit or stand inside the puppet with their arms stretched out to control it, which McGee acknowledges is a workout.

In McGee’s designs, Audrey II is devised as an adaptation of a bunraku rod puppet where the puppeteer is not confined inside the puppet. Puppeteer RJ Pavel wears a black jumpsuit that covers him from head to toe, gets into a harness that’s connected to the back of Audrey II’s head through a rod and operates the plant from behind using that rig system. He uses handles that control the mouth through the leaves the mask him and is completely hidden from the audience.

“You get to see the stem of the neck, and you get to see the head moving and everything is alive,” McGee said. “Just seeing it in action – even for me, knowing how it works, I think ‘there it is, there’s the magic.’”

A lot of the material used for the plants is high density foam rubber sheet, which comes in sheets with different thicknesses and dry out patterns based on a model mockup. McGee blew out the pattern to the scale that he needed, and then traced it on the foam, cut it and glued it together to get the shapes of the heads and the leaves. They were then painted and coated in rubber to make them durable.

McGee said that he’s taken a lot of joy out of the differences in color patterns on the leaves, which are inspired by not only plants, but reptiles like lizards and frogs. The baby Pod One, “Twoey,” has leaves around his head that have highlights of greens and purples. By the time it progresses to Pod Three, he’s still got purples and greens, but the tips are blue, orange and yellow – it’s not exactly your typical “mean green mother,” but it’s definitely “from outer space.” When we spoke, McGee was finishing up Pod Four, which will be darker, with more of a grey tone.

“I’m excited by the contrasts of darks and brighter eerie neon greens and yellows, so it becomes less earthly,” he said. “The bigger he gets, the more alien he should become. It starts out looking like a little flytrap but by the end he has to have the essence of a flytrap that grows into something truly monstrous.”

McGee also uses his puppets to tie this production directly to the DMV area during the time period of Little Shop. McGee put Twoey in a Wilkins coffee can, a popular DMV coffee brand during the ‘60s, to pay homage to the fact that this production is being done in Washington, D.C., where Jim Henson got his start. To make this “puppet nerdy happy little Easter egg,” he found photos of the cans, edited the label from those photos, and Photoshopped it to put it onto the can.

“It’s so satisfying,” he said. “I get to tie in all these things [together] and make it pertinent to not only the time period but also this show and the location.”

McGee was also involved in teaching the actors to use the puppets, and spoke highly of the puppeteer RJ Pavel, who’s had puppeteering experience before. Pavel bases the movements on a lot of the inflections and cues of Marty Austin Lamar (the voice of Audrey II), and translates it into the physical life and the plant’s body language.