An Audience Onstage Once More
Leda Hoffmann has everyone onstage for Marquette’s production of Student Body. It’s been happening a lot lately. Greendale Community Theatre did it a little while back with [title of show]. Just last week Cooperative Performance did it at Alverno with Ellis. Hoffmann is particularly bold given the nature of the play. The stage at Marquette’s Helfaer Theatre is modest for a bigger theater to begin with. Get everyone onstage and it’s remarkably cozy. Here characters, actors and audience all hang out onstage in a one-hour drama that feels like a much more intellectually confrontational take on 12 Angry Men. For one hour, there’s nowhere to hide for any of us. We all have to take a look a ourselves and it’s not going to be pretty.
The Role of A One-Hour Conversation Will Be Played By... A One-Hour Conversation
Oh...and it’s a play set in a college theatre for one hour. As audience and actors, WE are onstage for one hour.
The cast of ten is really, really good. The big problem I have with Twelve Angry Men is that it’s Twelve Angry Men. Big questions of guilt, innocence and justice NEED to be an all-inclusive discussion. That’s a big reason why I think this is a much more relevant work than its predecessor.
It’s reassuring to see a group of ten young actors navigate the linguistic complexities of a passionate one-hour conversation that rolls through many twists and turns over the course of an hour. The characters’ arrival at the beginning of the play are staggered, but for the most part this is ten actors all onstage for a full hour, which means that everyone in the cast needs to stay in character for a full hour even when they’re not actually saying anything. In a studio theatre setting, it can be really obvious when people slip out of character for even a moment even when the direction of the dramatic action is nowhere near them.
Playwright Frank Winters’ Student Body stages an extremely frustrating situation. A group of students have shown-up at a college theatre to discuss whether or not video footage of a sexual assault at a party should be handed-in to the police. Unlike Marquette, it’s a small town college. Everyone has a different relationship to the events at the party. Everyone’s at least a bystander by the end of the play, even if only in being a part of a group of people who could bring the footage to the authorities.
Every one in the audience is going to have a slightly different perspective on the matter. I realize the playwright is trying to show the complexities of the matter, but as a father of a couple of girls who are going to be in college in a little over a decade, I want it to be every simple as it seems on the surface. A crime has been committed. The authorities need to know about it. It’s the only way this sort of thing can be properly addressed. Otherwise all we get is the smug face of Brock Turner staring back at us as a society. The footage should be handed over. Isn’t it that simple? Please?
Winters’ script covers the sophisticated web of problems surrounding the issue while still managing to keep it feeling very natural and organic. Hoffmann does a really good job of pointing us as an audience at this thing and making sure that we’re all paying really close attention to it.
One Hour and One SD Card (and possibly one big spoiler)
On a very physical and superficial level, the play is one hour of dramatic conversation between ten actors playing ten characters seen by an audience. On a purely physical level, it all involves a video file on a single SD card. It’s a piece of plastic 15 mm x 11 mm x 1 mm. A prop that small would get lost on the stage of anything other than a studio theatre. With cast and audience onstage at the Helfaer, it’s small enough to seem perilously tiny without being so small as to be totally immaterial.
The fates of victim, perpetrator and bystanders all rest on a tiny piece of plastic. It’s a very potent visual. Rene Leech holds it in her hand at one point. She’s playing Liz. Liz is a very assertive voice in the ensemble and Leech does a really good job with that towering assertiveness. In Leech’s hands, Liz is an authority onstage. She pulls the SD card out of the camera and the tension in the room goes up a few hundred degrees.
Marquette University’s production of Student Body runs through Feb. 25 at the Helfaer Theatre on 525 N. 13th St. A concise and comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express. For ticket reservations, visit Marquette online.