Challenging Times, Challenging Themes

November 8, 2021

Story by Helen Sanders MLitt ’21 & MFA ’22

Mary Baldwin’s undergraduate theatre department has decided to use multiple genres to take on big issues for the 2021–22 season. 

Students will interpret classics like Romeo and Juliet to highlight themes of community and civil disobedience. Moliere’s The Pretentious Young Ladies satirizes the dangers — and absurdities — of outmoded social norms. Class inequality takes centerstage in the 1960s avant garde musical Promenade, while immigration and identity are dramatized in Naomi lizuka’s contemporary masterpiece, Anon(ymous)

The selections center around “connection and relationships,” said assistant professor and Promenade director Molly Seremet. Specifically, “the things that get in the way of connection, such as markers of exclusion.” 

The approach feels timely as we enter another pandemic winter with the civil unrest surrounding the police murder of George Floyd and divisive Jan. 6 capital building riots still looming in our collective memory. Seremet hopes the plays will serve as catalysts for students and MBU family members to explore the personal and social forces that impact connectivity in their own lives.  

“Theatre is by its nature a uniquely powerful collaborative experience,” said Seremet. Productions begin as a relationship between text, director, cast, and crew. Live performances expand that relationship to include the audience. More than any other artform, “everyone plays a role in interpreting the narrative.” 

The first of this year’s performances, Promenade, opened on Oct 20. The convention-bending musical production was penned by openly gay, Cuban-born American playwright María Irene Fornés during the Vietnam War. The Guggenheim fellow won acclaim as a leader of the 1960s off-off-Broadway experimental  theatre movement. Seremet says her wicked smart humor and absurdist satire likely makes her “the single greatest playwright you’ve never heard of.”

The play was chosen mainly for its biting critiques of class, capitalism, and exploitation. But faculty members, guest directors, and students also loved its ensemble cast and “ample opportunities for interesting collaborations.” 

Notable among the latter was the decision to bring in two Shakespeare & Performance Program graduate teaching fellows and a friend of the program to choreograph music and dance. Summer England, Natasia Reinhardt, and Lisa Stephens of Queen City Music Studios worked closely with the undergrad troupe to compose new original sequences for the department’s production. This, says Seremet, helped students feel free to creatively interpret the play’s often jarring, frequently hilarious, but always absurd dramatic juxtapositions.

Students in MBU's undergraduate theatre program performing María Irene Fornés's experimental 1960s musical, Promenade.

The show follows a pair of poor, nameless convicts that tunnel out of their prison cell and flee through a city pursued by a buffoonish, sex-crazed police officer. Along the way they’re joined by a disgruntled maid. The trio stumbles into a decadent banquet where socialites inspire them to break into a song about the many ways “riches make you dumb.” Next they happen onto a Vietnam battlefield where the wealthy hold a picnic surrounded by wounded, dying soldiers — one of whom is more concerned with complaining about an untasty hamburger than impending doom. The play concludes in the home of the Mayor with lyrics that put a stabbing spin on Marie Antoinette’s celebrated statement: “And for those who have no cake / There’s plenty of bread.”

The play’s genius lies in its ability to convince the audience to sympathize with the prisoners and consider a series of symbolic, highly stylized social interactions through a working class lens.  

“We asked students to step outside their comfort zone and take on some huge issues in a really unconventional manner,” said Seremet. Staged in the round — i.e. with audience members on four sides of the stage — Promenade challenged students’ ideas of form and presentation. It was a big risk, but “the payoff was even bigger.” 

College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Paul Menzer says the season’s remaining performances will follow a similar directive. 

“This year is all about pushing students to examine relevant social issues in performance, but also explore the conventions of the genres that tell these stories,” said Menzer.  

A mid-Feb. run of Anon(ymous) will ask students to think outside the box to stage the play’s abundant magical realism. Using classical approaches to amplify heightened language within Romeo and Juliet will expand acting toolkits in late March and early April. The Pretentious Young Ladies will conclude the year in May with a classroom study of a lesser-known work by one of theatre’s most famous satirists. 

“This season is basically a love letter to a very, very talented cohort of students,” said Seremet. Emphasizing the interpretation of timeless themes to echo contemporary social issues across multiple genres will challenge them to take their acting to the next level. 

Audiences will have the privilege of watching the results in real time. 

“This year is all about pushing students to examine relevant social issues in performance, but also explore the conventions of the genres that tell these stories.”
Paul Menzer, College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean.

INTERESTED IN LEARNING MORE about upcoming shows from MBU’s theatre department? Check their Facebook for announcements, dates, show times, and more.