Wit as a deflection. A caustic facade as a form of distraction. Sarcasm as a protective shield. These concepts of using the lighthearted to distract from a buried, often dark inner struggle permeate this year’s set of Original Winter One Acts: three shows written, directed, produced and performed by students, with themes ranging from young love to internal indecisiveness to familial turmoil. They shed light onto often unspoken flaws of the human condition in a manner student theater rarely reaches.
“P.S. Please Send Money,” written by Olivia Popp ’20 and directed by Noah Bennett ’19, is by far the most lighthearted of the bunch, outlining a classic boy-meets-girl scenario with a psychological twist. Two hot-headed college students find themselves tasked with the monumental undertaking of psychoanalyzing one another for a class project. Both approach the undertaking with disinterest. The most engaging task placed before them soon becomes chipping away (slowly, albeit) at one another’s pasts.
Melissa (Ali Rosenthal ’20) is a materialistic trust-fund baby with no thoughts other than the superficial. The size of her family’s bank account is only matched by the size of her mouth, as she constantly challenges every move made by George (Carter Burr-Kirven ’18). Rosenthal’s spunk-filled and quirky portrayal quickly dissuades the audience that self-absorption is Melissa’s only defining characteristic.
George, named “George Oh God Washington” in a hospital mishap, fits the mold of a nerdy college boy simply attempting to get by. Burr-Kirven’s use of physical comedy only serves to make George more endearing. As he flails across the stage, adding emphasis to every word spoken to Melissa, or acts out over-dramatized comic book scenes for his own entertainment, we are continually convinced of his silly and awkward nature.
The initial interactions of the two appear to only satisfy and entertain onlookers through surface-level wit and banter; however, as the show progresses, each word, phrase or action directed toward the opposite individual carries a new warmth-inducing depth. While the initial relationship between Melissa and George feels structured and forced, it soon enchants the audience in a constant “will they, won’t they?” battle.
“Will,” written by Steve Rathje ’18 and directed by Isaac Goldstein ’19, carries with it the momentum of “P.S. Please Send Money,” but the lighthearted premise quickly delves into deeper, darker territory. The show opens with a raw confession by Allie (Mo Asembiomo ’20). Allie is plagued by “chronic indecisiveness” stemming from her own constant battle with her intuition. To remedy this issue, she hires “decision consultant” Will (Kiko Ilagan ’19) to make all of her choices for her.
We witness the potential of failure and mishap loom over each character’s head, eventually eroding the upbeat, optimistic facade of Allie and cold, analytical exterior of Will. They break free from their assumed roles to highlight the importance of abandoning doubt. In Will’s words, “A decision doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be made.”
“On the Detection of Dark Matter,” written by Fiona Maguire ’19 and directed by Madeline Weiss ’17, shifts the mood of the One Acts experience dramatically; as the previous two shows’ darker content was masked in a playful sheen, the final show’s heaviness is much more upfront. Grace (Evie Johnson ’20) displays her sharp intellect and academic domination through a speech aimed at earning her a research grant in the field of astronomy. A veritable symbol of control, she has mastered her studies, retained a doting and supportive boyfriend Nick (Brian Morris ’20) and awaits the imminent joy of her sister’s wedding. However, this joy and sense of security is marred by memories of her abusive father and the turmoil he inflicted upon her family. Johnson brilliantly snaps in and out of these painful recollections, allowing the audience to see the deterioration of her composure and confidence as the reunion with her father looms in her mind.
We become firsthand witnesses to the detriment caused by bottling up our darkest emotions and fears instead of allowing them to come to light and be addressed. “On the Detection of Dark Matter” highlights a dismal truth: Our past catches up to us. The least we can do is try to understand it.
The Original Winter One Acts are a unique experience in that each new story is refreshing in subject matter yet contains a similar underlying value: the ultimate importance of addressing denial. Be it denial of feelings, one’s intuition or the persistence of one’s own past, these One Acts force the viewer into a state of questioning: How often do we deflect from our true selves and wants? This question is relevant given the nature of student theater. Each individual used the stage as a platform to highlight the fact that we tend to snuff out our gut feelings, especially in an environment that places enormous pressure on the decisions we make. It’s easy to lose ourselves at a place like Stanford, but this year’s set of One Acts gently steers us back to our own intuition.
Contact Elizabeth Gerson at egerson ‘at’ stanford.edu.