FOR THOSE WHO LIKE TO WATCH
The rumblings of the elevated train beside Steep Theatre are chillingly atmospheric for the Midwest premiere of Simon Stephens’ Pornography. After all, this collection of monologues and two-person scenes are unified by an intense week in London in 2005, which included the Live 8 Concert, the G8 summit, the 2012 Olympics announcement – and the deadly July 7 tube bombings. These disparate scenes connect rather than cohere; impressive performances, smart design, and innovative videography sustain this thought-provoking play.
As the subway ominously thunders past, life goes on for Stephens’ diverse characters, which range from an overworked mother (Kendra Thulin, whose entire monologue was unfortunately obscured by a post in front of my seat) to a smitten young couple (Walter Briggs and Caroline Neff). John Taflan offers a particularly gripping performance as one of the suicide bombers; tightly clutching the shoulder straps of his black backpack, the bomber gripes about Upper Crust’s crappy coffee and sold-out almond croissants on his way to the subway. The historic events of the week shift and shape the characters’ lives, but such specific details of everyday existence flash into shocking relief throughout Stephens’ play.
Each scene takes place on a separate, elevated white block – yet the actors’ performances never seem confined by this staging. Robin Witt’s direction crafts a dynamism to each character’s tale, and Chelsea Warren’s simple set design grounds the cast. The black track among the boxes – used for transitions – becomes a charged space of movement and potential encounter between the scenes.
While only a few sections explicitly consider sex, Stephens’ play draws attention to spectatorship as its own form of pornography. Steep Theatre’s three-sided stage makes the audience not only self-conscious spectators of the onstage action, but of their fellow audience members. The gaze is not unidirectional in this production: just as the audience gapes into the characters’ personal lives, these actors peer back. Some banter with the audience, others aggressively confront the surrounding spectators. Meanwhile, Mike Tutaj’s mesmerizing postmodern mash-ups of sex, drugs, violence, and protest cut across the video monitors during transitions; these videos draw attention to the warped and proliferating pornography of the media. Especially when it comes to surveillance and public security, there is a fine line between attentiveness and voyeurism, between politics and pornography.
In striking contrast to the quick-cut transitions between scenes, a slow and sustained video counting down each of the 52 bombing victims both begins and ends the play. A single sentence offers a glimpse into each individual’s unique history and unfulfilled aspirations. Tutaj effects a radical shift in the videography here: from salacious pornography to a vital memorial. On the night I attended, many audience members exited the theater before this video concluded; but for me, it provided the necessary connective tissue for the entire production.
The media is how we in the US were first linked to that week’s events in London. In flashy, pornographic fragments, we absorbed the headlines, the facts, the figures, the images. But Steep Theater’s production of Pornography returns us to a compelling, prolonged encounter with the human sides of the story. In light of the recent England riots, this play, about the rumbling impact of violence on everyday lives, seems especially timely.
stellis @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Lee Miller
scheduled to end on September 17
for tickets, visit http://steeptheatre.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com