Empty Stage, Empty Page

Mon 8th – Sat 13th August 2011

reviews

May Anderson

at 10:00 on 10th Aug 2011

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When a narrator states within the first ten minutes of a production that the play will ‘seek to find out what it is to be human’ you know you’ve got an ambitious, and possible very pretentious, hour of theatrical navel-gazing to sit through. Thankfully, this production isn’t pretentious, just marginally misguided. A ten-minute dance introduction sequence could have been excruciating, and whilst some of the movements from the cast members were less than elegant, the effect is surprisingly watchable - although it strayed precariously close to the ‘become-the-tree’ school of dramatic practice.

The play follows Alyson and her struggles with word blindness – no, me either – as she moves to a new school. Not being able to read unsurprisingly causes a lot of difficulty for Alyson in her new environment and the play centres around Alyson trying to complete a book report. However, being unable to complete the assignment in the usual way she begins to despair until a congregation of literary characters from American, English and Greek literature descend upon the stage.

And here is my biggest quibble with the play: the ensemble of literary characters that get roped in to help Alyson out are colourless approximations of themselves, serving only to give Alyson rather inane advice such as ‘be yourself’ and ‘don’t let others tell you what to do’. When characters from Pip from ‘Great Expectations’ to Oedipus are take up the role of agony aunt you know something’s not quite right. Although I did quite enjoy the fact that they included some less helpful personas – Holden Caulfield is perhaps the last person you want to hear from when you’re feeling low. As literature student I’ve got to hold up my hands and admit my extreme bias when it comes to seeing these characters represented on the stage but when Hamlet tells Alyson that he really regrets his part in his ‘love’ Ophelia’s suicide, its hard not to be offended by the liberties they’ve taken with some of these characters. But this is high school production devised collaboratively between the students and their teacher and these kids are not scholars. The production is perhaps more suited to a younger audience and I’d warn anyone with sensitive literary sensibilities to avoid it like the plague.

There are some really lovely enchanting aspects of the production however. Unexpectedly closing the show with a song, the voices of the cast are sweet and strong. The show’s narrator, Mehr Kaur, is a confident and consummate performer adding a professionalism that is lacking from some of the typically wooden examples of student acting found elsewhere in the play. The cast are clearly committed and the hard work that has gone into the set, costuming and really quite impressive lighting is very apparent. 'Empty Stage, Empty Page' isn't the most profound piece of theatre you'll see at this year's festival but the HHS Drama Ensemble should feel proud of this little production.

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Bethany Knibb

at 10:00 on 10th Aug 2011

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I thought “Empty Page, Empty Stage” was going to be another over-dramatised, painfully serious production from the American High School Theatre Festival and my greatest fears were very nearly confirmed in the first 10 minutes. It felt like I’d mistakenly been allowed into a warm-up rehearsal, during which the actors were, I could only hope, parodying contemporary theatre – shouting single words out (“gossip” …. “exclusion” … “flirting” …) and moving into different abstract shapes. The single clap in unison was my favourite part of this prologue of sorts, before our charismatic narrator (Mehr Kaur) informed us that, yes, there WAS going to be a play. Good.

It transpired that these American kids were clever enough to stick to what they know: High School. The primary subject matter is ‘fitting in at school’ – something I’m sure lies very close to their and many of the audience members’ hearts. Alyson (Lauren Sheridan) loses her ability to read and so has to change schools. She has the difficulty of trying to ‘fit in’ whilst struggling with not being able to read. The theme develops into the impact literary characters’ have on young people and how they can offer some valid life lessons, which we see at play later on in this production. However, time spent further developing the storyline (for example, there is quite a lot of talk about the school timetable) was to the detriment of the more significant message in "Empty Page, Empty Stage". The acting was good for High School standards, though many of the actors did not look entirely comfortable on the vast stage.

My favourite part of the production was in the programme. On the back page a “recent review” of the production is provided by Gene Cassidy and, with comments such as “the humor is natural, seeping out at hard moments as it does in life” and “eye-opener for people who may think the 21st Century has passed theater by…or isn’t as much fun as, for instance, golf”, I have to wonder at her seriousness.

Due to the considerable size of the cast, getting everyone on stage in their character costumes was impressive but quite distracting – I liked the concept in theory but felt the execution of the ‘advice from literary characters’ scene was too hurried to fully appreciate (it was probably a 10 minute scene with more than 20 characters appearing to give their tuppenceworth).

Hopkinton High School Drama Ensemble round off the production with an original song, meaning that, for me, the play finishes much the way it starts.

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