Hinter by Jean-Michel Cliche and Caroline Coon’s It Happened at a Party are this year’s winners of the NotaBle Acts Theatre Festival’s playwriting competition in the Acting Out category. For winning in their category, Cliche and Coon received dramaturgical support from playwright and librettist Anna Chatterton. Audiences can see the winning one-act plays at Memorial Hall, located on the University of New Brunswick campus, where they are being presented as a double bill until August 5th.
Nature has reclaimed the earth in Hinter, directed by Sharisse LeBrun. Val (Amanda Thorne) and Missy (Telina Debly) are sisters trying to survive the post-apocalypse and return home – well, whatever is left of it anyway. The wild has buried much of humankind and its achievements. Seemingly, humans went too far in their pursuit of gaining purpose and were subsequently punished for it by the animals. The animals have divided themselves into different classes, each fulfilling an important function to maintain their dominance over humankind.
A stranger named Calvin (Ryan Griffith) finds Val and Missy’s camp. Calvin claims to be a Guardian, a special class of human that protects the young, and that there are many others like him, searching for others to help. The sisters are hesitant at first to trust Calvin, but then eventually decide to accept his company.
There are three layers to the world that Cliche has created here: (1) the New World, dominated by nature (2) the Old World, buried underneath the wild (3) memories of the Old World, otherwise known as home. Val and Missy’s memories of home are almost ghostly in the way that they can be seen (down to the floor plan of their house) but never lived again. Returning home is a futile attempt at going back to the way things were.
And so, it is an interesting choice by LeBrun to have Val step outside of the stage – effectively removing her from all three layers of the world – and deliver a monologue about her home life. The blocking certainly provides intimacy with the audience, but what about the fact these characters have just retraced their steps back home? Going home is as much spiritual as it is physical. There is a sense of a missed opportunity for Val to walk through her former life on stage, to guide the audience through her introspective journey.
The set is simple enough with two big tree stumps serving as seats around the campfire, logs of wood on top of a circle of rocks. There is a large camping tent, set up by Thorne and Debly, stage left. Strangely, the trees are represented by a long plastic looking material, split down the middle, that hang from up high. The flimsy material really seems misplaced alongside the tree stumps, logs of wood, and rocks – the aesthetic of an earth reclaimed by nature. Yes, there is a kind of depth and image of wild growth achieved, but then the camping tent – a product of the Old World – and the trees look too similar, contradicting the primary conflict at the play’s core.
There is an ambiguity as to whether or not Calvin is telling the truth about the Guardians. What feeds that ambiguity is Calvin’s obsession with hero narratives – saving the day from the big bad wolves that prey on innocent life. Is Calvin simply a hero in his own mind or has he really been tasked by a secret group of magical protectors with saving the next generation? He wouldn’t be the one who’s chasing a fantasy. Griffith makes this ambiguity interesting with the way he is calm with a very slight aggression underneath.
Although sometimes the script loses its footing, the conclusion is very satisfying, albeit with the exception of one thing, Left for dead, Val comes face-to-face with one of the monsters (Alex Rioux, wearing a large animal-like skull with massive antlers and fur). LeBrun’s perceptive study of the scene, in addition to her eye for theatricality, produces a confrontation that is magnificently melancholic, yet hopeful. The play feels so emotionally and thematically complete at this point that it’s really too bad that it’s not the final scene! And that’s nothing against Debly who closes the play with a brief scene afterwards; knowing when to end something is hard.
Directed by Tilly Jackson, It Happened at a Party tells the story of Camilla (Kelsey Hines), a high school student invited to a house party hosted by popular student athlete Ryan (Alex Fullerton). Joining Camilla are her friends Tyler (Robbie Lynn) and Lexi (Mallory Kelly), a couple in a problematic relationship. The group of friends get drunk together at the party. Tyler is the only one worried that Camilla may be too drunk. Lexi doesn’t think so, and neither does Ryan who flirts with Camilla all night. After Tyler and Lexi leave, Ryan invites Camilla to lay down in his bedroom, and then the truth about what happened that night is taken to court.
Coon’s It Happened at a Party seeks to raise awareness about consent and sexual assault. The subject matter is very important, especially for young people. For some parents and educators, teaching sexual education is uncomfortable and something that would preferably be avoided altogether. As a result, some young people are left to figure out a lot on their own, including how to define a healthy relationship.
Coon recognizes social media’s damaging effect on the victims of sexual violence. Online, classmates actively try to damage Camilla’s reputation and credibility by spreading false information about her; she becomes a target of cyberbullying. The students show a lack of understanding – and concern – that their words have consequences in the real world. The aftermath of Camilla’s coming forward with her story leads her to feel alone, powerless, and trapped within a (larger cultural) narrative twisted against her.
Unfortunately, the play struggles to push its subject matter in a way that satisfies the question, “what does this play contribute to the conversation?” There is a lot that Coon wants to say with It Happened at a Party, as evidenced by the bloated script’s frequent jumps from scene to scene to scene. But there is a distinct lack of focus and individual voice throughout, perhaps a result of the 60-minute limit for entries in the Acting Out category. In trying to cover everything, Coon has written a play that’s not only flat, but missing the kind of urgency that generates discussion on the drive home (and hopefully beyond that, too).
For the set, there are three large rectangular panels upon which images are projected. The setup is put to good use by showing images of posts on popular social media sites about Camilla, along with text messages between students. The set can be described as minimalist, likely necessary in order to accommodate the number of scene changes.
Jackson’s direction produces a steady pace for the play. Although, time and place are loosely established.
Hines carries the show with ease as Camilla. The actor demonstrates great expression with an ability to deliver emotional highs and lows. The ensemble do a good job working together in a play that tackles serious issues.
Although there is a clear enthusiasm for education and awareness, Coon’s It Happened at a Party is a play in need of more work. The script might benefit from another look where the perspective is refined and its characters are given dimension. Maybe then, the play will have more weight that goes beyond its surface.
Hinter and It Happened at a Party were presented as workshopped productions.
The plays ran August 3 – 5 at UNB’s Memorial Hall.
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