New plays in the dregs of summer

Playwrights Emily Acker and Nicholas Wardigo.
Playwrights Emily Acker and Nicholas Wardigo.

October is finally here, which means summer is good and dead (for which, I am grateful), and we can get on with important stuff.  Like theater and writing.  You’re welcome.

Having said that, there was one interesting play I saw at the end of July that I’ve been going back and forth about mentioning: I Am Not My Motherland by Emily Acker.  I am not a reviewer, and even if I was, I saw this play very close to the end of its run, so there wouldn’t be any benefit for a theatergoer whatsoever (and even less now, that it’s eight weeks later).  Still, Emily is a local playwright and a colleague, and I think there’s some merit in bringing up the subject for the benefit of other playwrights, if not theatergoers, per se.

Straight off, let me say that I did not like this play.  That’s not to say it wasn’t well-directed or well-performed or even well-written, but it did not strike me well.  What’s interesting is that it didn’t strike me well for all the right reasons.

The story is framed by the events of a botched operation, in which a healthy kidney is removed from a patient and the diseased one left inside.  Within this framework, Emily couches the conflict between the surgeon and her resident, who are Palestinian and Israeli, respectively.  Nice little setup, actually.  And, as you would expect from an intelligent playwright, some nuanced arguments come up.  Here’s my problem: every argument is rehashed several times, as if from different viewpoints.  Sometimes, this occurs in the moment (as in, an actor literally says the same line three times, with some variation, demonstrating three very different ways of interpreting the interaction), and sometimes the entire scene is re-performed, differently, after the scene ends.  Often, she does both.

I understand that Emily is going for shades of gray, here, and that this play is about the interpretation of the characters, rather than concrete storytelling.  I’m reminded of the old adage that, if you ask any two people the same question, you’ll get three opinions.  But the problem is that, by the end of the play, I don’t know what actually happened.  Now, even as I type this, I can hear somebody on the other end of the Internet bringing up the brilliance of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which is a movie I enjoy very much that uses a similar technique, leading to uncertainty about the ending to great effect.  Motherland was quite different, perhaps because we weren’t talking about different versions of stories, but different versions of scenes, which went over and over before we moved on in the narrative.  Also, the technique of repeating individual lines, with some variation, got old pretty quickly.  I won’t do more than mention a few flashback scenes, which may or may not have pertained to family members of the characters and only muddled things for me.  Audiences are accustomed to an objective viewpoint, and playing with that might be fun, but it’s inherently dicey, and I don’t think Emily hit her mark.

Now, here’s the other end of this: I would prefer to see this than any production of Annie, anywhere.  Emily did what playwrights are supposed to do: take chances.  I don’t think it worked, but I can certainly respect anyone willing to try something different and do it with as much competence and inventiveness as Emily Acker.  I should also hasten to add, it did get positive reviews.  So what the hell do I know?

I’ll end this post by mentioning that the Push to Publish conference is this Saturday, October 8 at Rosemont College.  I’ve written about it extensively over the last three years, and while I won’t be attending this year, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in furthering (or finding) their writing career.


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