When the world is going through upheavals of all sorts: Global unrest, regional wars, economic instability, and who knows what else, the writers of the world begin writing in an attempt to help us understand what’s going on. Language in the hands of a skilled practitioner can be a powerful weapon or tool for social change, or at least, for clarity. But remember: be careful for what you ask… you just might get it.
The La Jolla Playhouse launched the world premiere of “Kingdom City” by playwright Sheri Wilner last Friday. Directed by Jackson Gay. “Kingdom City” is playwright Wilner’s take on the state of censorship in the United States in the 21st century. Like Arthur Miller before her she uses the metaphor of “The Crucible” to examine thorny problems and issues plaguing American society when it comes to religious issues versus political situations and protected First Amendment rights to free speech.
In short, the story revolves around and is set in motion by the decision of Miriam, a New York City stage director (Kate Blumberg) and her novelist husband Daniel (Todd Weeks) who find themselves in a small town in Missouri during the summer break at the local High School.
Miriam has been asked to direct a production of Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” using high school students. Once rehearsals begin her vision and style of directing sets off a firestorm of controversy with school officials, parents, and the ire of local Christian youth counselor Luke (Ian Littleworth) to the point that the production is in danger of being cancelled. Cast members Katie (Christina Gerla), Matt (Austyn Meyers), and Crystal (Katie Sapper) are beginning to discover new feelings and insights in themselves through the characters they portray in this play within a play. Their hope is that Miriam will stay on and continue with the show.
In the meantime, Daniel with time on his hands and a case of writer’s block, has been exploring the town of Kingdom City, where he meets Luke. Over time Daniel is drawn to the slower paced, small-town outdoor lifestyle, in the small Christian community and strikes up a friendly relationship with Luke, the town’s Christian youth counselor. When Miriam decides to leave the production and return to New York City, the couple begin to reevaluate their priorities and motives. They’re joined at the hip and both are willing to make life choices together. Stay in the Midwest or return to the Big Apple? Stay tuned.
The production under Gay’s direction is weakened somewhat by her decision not to stage the production in the traditionally configured PotikerTheatre. Instead, she chooses to use the convention of a long narrow rectangular area as the staging space; placing the audience facing one another like fans in a football stadium. This choice, at times, makes it somewhat difficult for dialogue to be heard at either end of the rectangle when action and blocking is called for at those points.
However, the cast has no trouble in being heard hurling numerous expletives and sexual innuendos along with more than 100 F-bombs at the audience (always in character of course). Actor Katie Sapper as Crystal, the teenager from Hell, and the character you love to hate is the worst offender. I’m sure there were some audience members who just wanted to smack her up the side of the head, and then have a chat with her parents; offering a large bar of soap to go along with their chat for later use. When feelings like that spill over, you know the actor is doing an outstanding job, which is exactly what Miss Sapper does in this production.
Each talented cast member performs solidly and when an ensemble scene is called for, the cast responds with conviction. Blumberg and Weeks are especially effective as the “outsiders.” Littleworth’s youth counselor is empathetic and his firmness in rationally stating in his opposition to Miriam’s play direction is well presented.
There has been a lot of talk and hand-wringing these days over the lack of young and talented playwrights emerging from the playwright pipeline. My fervent hope is that when they do pop out of that pipeline, they rush to the nearest bookstore and purchase the latest thesaurus. Our writers need to come up with more synonyms and vocabulary on how to express themselves when it comes to discourse and dialogue without using adjectives that employ “f…ing” in between every other word. And, I refuse to accept the excuse that it’s “real life” dialogue spoken in the vernacular of the day. Yes, of course it is, so are vomiting and diarrhea “real life” experiences, but I don’t care to see them on a stage performed by actors. What’s wrong with a little judicious editing in the number of times the country’s favorite shock and awe word is used? But I digress.
Director Gay leads her creative team with a spare, space-staging design by Robert Brill, neatly lighted by Paul Whitaker. The costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso and sound by Nicholas Drashner ably support the production. “Kingdom City”, runs at the PotikerTheatre through October 5, 2014.