Friday, May 15, 2015

Zeitgeist Stage Company Presents "The Submission" by Jeff Talbott - An Incendiary Look At Race and Gender

Artistic Director David Miller of Zeitgeist Stage Company has a well-earned reputation for producing plays that are edgy, that push the envelope, and that cause the audience to engage at a deep level with difficult and complex issues.  He builds upon that reputation with the latest production, Jeff Talbot's provocative and incendiary play, "The Submission." This four-handed drama asks a number of timely questions. What are we capable of doing and expressing when under duress?  Is the pain that a gay white male experiences at the hands of gay-bashing homophobes at all equivalent to the pain felt by a black female who has been the victim of racism?  What happens to loyalty when a person has two friends who become enemies with each other?

The premise of the play is brilliant and intriguing. Danny, a gay white writer in his late 20s, gains some insight into life in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and writes a play that incisively captures the ethos of the neighborhood and some of its denizens.  He decides to submit the play for consideration by the prestigious Humana Festival.  Fearing that no one will believe that a white writer could have such deep understanding of an alien culture, he makes the rash decision to submit the play under a made-up name that sounds African-American: Shaleeha G'ntamobi.  He is pleasantly surprised when the festival accepts his play for production, but quickly realizes that he has a problem.  They will expect a black woman to collaborate with them in mounting the production.  So, he hires Emilie, an actress, to play the role.  Complications ensue that involve miscommunication, apparent betrayal,divided loyalties, and  mutual accusations of stereotyping.  The arc of the play leads inexorably to a fiery confrontation between Emilie and Danny, and Danny is left to ponder just who he is at the core of his being.

Mr. Miller has cast four talented young actors to tell Mr. Talbott's story.

Victor Shopov portrays a mesmerizing and conflicted Danny.  Mr. Shopov is fresh from a stunningly successful 2014 season, garnering both IRNE and Elliot Norton Awards.  He continues his skein of award-worthy performances in this role.  As written, the character of Danny travels a rocky road.  He feels the usual artist's self-doubt and angst in putting his creative baby in the hands of others.  His writing demonstrates a liberal openness to and understanding of other cultures, but when push comes to shove, different sensibilities emerge that shock him and his circle of friends.  Mr. Shopov is at his best when venting his spleen and his rage at Emilie after he feels that she has double crossed him by not following the script he wrote for her to read at the Humana Festival.  His anger is volcanic, and words pour out of his mouth and out of his soul that have the effect of molten lava - they sear and destroy everything in their path.  As the play winds down, we find Danny sitting and sulking in a Starbucks, his de facto office and home away from home..  He is clearly shaken and broken, contemplating how such a stream of vitriolic magma could have spewed forth from the caldera at the depth of his being. After his outburst, he wonders what is his future as a playwright and as a human being?  Mr. Shopov traverses the landscape of Danny's ambivalent journey with his usual pinpoint control. Even if there were not other compelling reasons to see this show, the chance to see one of Boston's best actors at the top of his game should be enough to motivate you to click on the link below and buy a ticket to see "The Submission."

Aina Adler portrays Emilie.  She too is required to cover a broad spectrum of emotional states.  She is alternately skeptical, dubious, intrigued, excited, controlling, defensive, insecure, dominant and furious as she tries to figure out how this short-term paying gig as an actress may impact her future. Ms. Adler, too, is at her strongest in the climactic scene when everything hits the fan.  Both Emilie and Danny, in the heat of verbal battle, find themselves slinging epithets at one another that they would never consider uttering under more subdued circumstances.  Once the ultimate verbal atomic bomb has been dropped, all four characters are frozen in place in shock.  It is a powerful moment beautifully staged by Mr. Miller. Each character is clearly wondering what life will be like now that this bell has been rung that can never be un-rung.  And the audience is wondering what may happen next. As the frozen tableau persists for several minutes, tensions and doubts arise for all parties.

The always entertaining and engaging Diego Buscaglia plays Pete, Danny's live-in lover.  Pete functions both as an encourager to Danny's creative pursuits and as a Jiminiy Cricket-type conscious, occasionally trying to hold Danny back - sometimes even physically - from giving vent to his inner demons and subterranean prejudices.  Pete has his own journey to take as he begins to realize that the man he loves may be both more and less than he first imagined.  Can they stay together once Danny's Mr. Hyde has been exposed.  His best moment on stage occurs early in the play when Pete is in high dudgeon, his nose out of joint when he learns that Danny had chosen to show the manuscript of his new play to Trevor before allowing Pete to read it.

Matthew Fagerberg is Trevor, Danny's longtime friend, Yale classmate and muse.  He is first to read the play and encourages Danny to submit it to the Humana Festival.  When Emilie is hired to impersonate the fictional Shaleeha, an instant spark is struck between Pete and Emilie.  As their relationship grows closer, and the partnership between Emilie and Danny begins to show cracks, Tevor is placed squarely in the middle.  Mr. Fagerberg does an excellent job of portraying his dilemma oftentimes through gesture, body language and other non-verbal clues.  He brings an energy to this role that is infectious and winsome.

Victor Shopov as Danny
Diego Buscaglia as Pete
Matthew Fagerberg as Trevor
Aina Adler as Emilie
"The Submission" by Jeff Talbott
Zeitgeist Stage Company
At Boston Center forthe Arts
Through May 30

David Miller has designed a tripartite set - a generic Starbucks, Danny and Pete's apartment, and a middle ground that serves as a hotel room where Emilie is able to use a dressing table to make some needed costume changes.  Mr. Shopov doubles as costume designer, Michael Clark Wonson provides atmospheric lighting and J. Jumbelic has designed sound that fills the space between scenes.

Mr. Talbott's writing is strongest in his dialogue.  The characters all sound as if they are genuine 20-something New Yorkers caught up in the worlds of theater and finance.  The diction is just right in capturing the ethos of that generation.  They often interrupt one another, finish each other's sentences and generally comport themselves as Millennials are wont to do. If there is a weakness in this fine script, it is in the length and in the pacing of the play. There is one scene in particular in which Danny is trying to screen potential actors for his play by spying on them from across the street as they exit the audition space.  For me, the action ground to a halt and the energy sagged - not because of the actors, but because of the writing.  But I am quibbling, for on the whole this is an intriguing play and an outstanding production of that play.

You have until May 30th to "Submit" yourself to the BCA box office to procure your ticket for a play that you do not want to miss.

Zeitgeist Stage Website



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