Last week Jimmie and I attended a performance of Actually, a new play by Anna Ziegler, at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse. A co-production with Williamstown Theatre Festival (August 9-20, 2017) and The Manhattan Theatre Club (October 31-November 14, 2017), the play addresses the issues of consent in the context of Title IX rules at Universities. Princeton, in this case (an institution close to my heart) where, through the lens of two freshmen students we see their collision in a devastating incident that is unfortunately far too possible.
This play should be required viewing for every university freshman in the first weeks of college.
Ziegler’s characters are well and specifically written – Amber Cohen, played by Samantha Ressler, whose rapid speech and disaffected behavior reveal the trauma she has experienced. She confides to the audience about the challenges she and others faced in the first weeks of school:
- Away from home and relieved of parental constraints
- Overwhelmed by a surfeit of reading homework and
- An endless barrage of parties she feels obligated to attend
- Looking for a sense of identity in a new community and anxious to make friends
Thomas Anthony (Jerry MacKinnon), handsome and confident, faces many of the same issues as Amber, but also, black, first generation in college attending Princeton. The stakes are high.
The play demands a lot of these two actors – complete presence in all moments with each other, as well as the ability to speak directly to the audience, dropping artifice as they plead their cases. Because we, the audience, are the Title IX review board. This is uncomfortable, and challenging in the way that we or at least I expect to be challenged when I go to the theatre. The actors, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, achieve distinctive and personal styles in their address which illuminate their characters and their vulnerabilities.
Incoming students feel the pressures that these two thespian freshmen feel. Perhaps some are better equipped to make safer choices than others. Or, are they just luckier and don’t end up having these experiences because of some random fate or karma? Who knows? As the article by Amy Levinson, “The Letter and the Law,” in the program (available online to read) indicates, the statistics about campus rape are staggering:
- One in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college.
- Freshmen and sophomores are at greater risk for victimization than juniors and seniors.
- More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
- 63.3% of men at one university who self-reported acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to committing repeat rapes.
Ziegler’s play, in addition to addressing these issues head on, is powerfully structured. Through a series of flashbacks she allows us to reexamine the events of the evening in question, each time flipping them slightly like shards of glass, refracting a dazzling new insight based on new information. People are complicated. They bring things to human encounters that aren’t apparent, but can and do profoundly impact what happens.
Tim Mackabee’s natural wood-grained box enclosure cradles the play. Its elegant simplicity disarms us into thinking the events that are coming will be tidy and well-contained. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting along with Vincent Olivieri’s sound punctuate the box with shimmering waves of aqua and teal light pulsing along with the party music to allow seamless passage between the party flashbacks and the stark conference room where we now find ourselves as the events are dissected. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s costumes are casual, Amber’s warm orange top and pants contrasting with Thomas’ blue jeans and soft blue top. Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is tight, well-paced. And how lovely to see a team of strong women in charge of telling this story.
It is a riveting evening, which left me wondering how to get more people to see it. So struck was I with the piece, that I reached out the next day to the playwright, to see about how to get the script into the hands of incoming freshmen.
This play should be required reading for every university freshman in the first week of college. Can’t say it enough.
Fortunately for you, if you live in Los Angeles, you can still see the play at the Geffen Playhouse through June 11th. I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.