Three provocative, emotionally-charged, highly relevant plays celebrated the waning of the year and of the decade. Sweat was performed at Amarillo Little Theatre’s Adventure Space; Ada and the Engine at West Texas A&M; Nibbler at Amarillo College’s Experimental Theatre.
All three plays shared an overarching theme: fear of change. Nibbler centered on teenage angst as recent high school graduates fear leaving their insulated bubble for the wider world of young adults. Sweat deals with the disruptive and destructive fear wrought by social change which obliterates a way of life. Ada and the Engine features English society’s fear of a woman’s accomplishments.
Sweat won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Lynn Nottage. The work, despite pulses of levity, is dark and depressing, because it is too real. Good people lose control over their lives because of forces beyond them. If we don’t suffer from that incubus in real life, the prospect haunts our nightmares.
Thanks to the generosity of the adult beverage industry, a fully-functioning bar remained the prop throughout the show. That watering hole became ground zero for labor and life disputes that feature racism, xenophobia, poverty, addiction and crime.
There an entire culture of generational rust-belt, blue-collar workers, wrestle with the consequences of demographics, technological and geopolitical change that dominate their workplace and way of life. Failed by their company, their union, their country, and, ultimately, one another, they lose faith in themselves and in life.
Retrain, retool, modify and adjust to a new world order weren’t seen as options. The resentment and rage left in the wake of this social and economic upheaval would bear fruit thirty years later. The political fields of rust-belt red that elected Donald Trump were sown in the 1980’s.
The actors portrayed their characters in a credible manner, from their believable emotions and attitudes to their northern industrial accents. Wonder if they drank Rolling Rock Beer to get in character? Alan Shankles, the director, pushed the play at the right tempo to an impactful finale.
Sweat garnered the best applause: those seeing this play won’t soon forget it.
Director Ray Newburg called Nibbler, by Ken Urban, the edgiest play ever performed at Amarillo College. The impulse to stage this play , according to Newburg, stemmed from a decision to better prepare students for professional theatre, where a major portion of the income will derive, not from Shakespearean genres, but from edgy social commentary like Nibbler.
So, he and the AC Theatre Department, rolled the dice, and, according to this reviewer, got a seven. One compromise: the original production by the Amoralists in NYC flaunted an unqualified X Rating, whereas the AC production tamed down to an R.
Yet the dialogue retained sufficient saltiness with elided expletives to clue the audience. Asked whether the actors had to be directed up to the requisite verbal intensity, Newburg noted that it was the opposite as young people have a tendency to over-dramatize the spoken word, especially the four-letter forms.
The play centers on a group of friends, recent high school grads, who face an exit from their New Jersey Pine Barrens outlier for the wider world of college. Teenage angst with accents.
They mask their fear of the unknown by weed, cigs and sex, either vocalized or actual. Each character feels afraid and vulnerable as they face the future. So far, typical and universal.
Then, the Nibbler appears, making the play part science fiction and part theatre of the absurd. A hickey from this extraterrestrial alien, creatively shown on a jumbo tron, a nice tech touch by Technical Director Monty Downs, imparts both instant orgasm and character morphing into the character’s adult selves.
All except an unbitten Adam, superbly played by Michael Villarreal, who has no plans to leave his comfort zone, leaving him in a time warp of nowhere man.
Then Matt, played by Jason Driver, and Hayley, well-acted in a last-minute casting by Lauren Steele, transform from shallow, self centered high schoolers to self-absorbed Republicans, embracing the cliche’d character traits so detested by non-Republicans. Relatable to Yellow City? Well….maybe a little.
Taylor Pritchett’s portrayal of Tara was the most compelling. Projecting an impeccable New Joysee accent, post-Nibbled Tara emerges as a crusading humanitarian iconoclast, the last quality influencing her pre-Stanford fling with the local policeman.
An appreciative audience, predominately young adult, applauded the cast and crew, accepting the four-letter dialogue and the condom toss with genuine laughter.
But the play contains a bigger question, with the answer only known by the playwright: the play opens in 2004, with Adam recalling how it was in 1992. The exit of characters leaves audience wondering about the state of Adam’s mortality. In giving up on growing up, did Adam give up on life?
Ada and the Engine is the second Lauren Gunderson play performed locally within two years. The playwright, whose plays are the most performed by any living writer, are typically fact-based biopics about competent women fighting for acceptance in a male-dominated world.
The premise of the play is actually that oldest of programmer’s jokes. There are 10 types of people in the world: those that understand binary code and those that don’t. Well, Ada Byron Lovelace got it, as she is the mother binary code, a century before Alan Turing and Bletchley Park helped win WWII.
The offspring of the wastrel Lord Byron, Ada grew up under the imperious domination of her mother, who was determined to distance daughter from paternal imprinting by letting only math and music mold her brain while she (Momma) molded daughter’s life for what good girls do: make good marriages and babies.
Ada’s twin passions combined when she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, the ancestor of the computer. This meeting of minds propelled Ada past math and music to a new poetry, the music of the spheres. She then envisioned the infinite programmable possibilities in the engine, conceiving binary code as the language of implementation.
This forms the vortex of the play, around which all other dramatic themes orbit. Among these are gender roles and Ada’s relationship with Charles Babbage.
Babbage, as played by Adam Hainsel, is the gravitational force which holds the play together. Though the model of propriety regarding Ada, his behavior barely masks the smoldering passion both feel for one another.
The constancy of Hainsel’s portrayal allows Ada, played by Isabel Lyda, to project a mercurial, eruptive brilliance. And, as foil and counter to Ada’s temperament, Ada’s Mother, Lady Anabella, played by Sophia Johnson, has all the empathy of a Marine drill instructor.
Ada and the Engine is didactic, and, like any good teacher, leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Gratitude to the WTAMU Theatre Dept, Director Callie Hisel, cast and crew for making us ask, “What if?”
Profound questioning is a common consequence of local theatrical productions, to the surprise of those who suspect the opposite in this conservative locale. With that, along with all of the other local arts, we can proudly say, “Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!”