—Originally published May 18, 2015—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Imagined up by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw two productions on the same day: WAVE Productions’ “The Language Archive,” directed by Anna Basile, and Arts Alliance’s “The Who’s Tommy,” directed by Hannah Fisher. Let’s hear what they had to say the following day…
In her small apartment, Dania lazily turned through the pages of the program for “The Who’s Tommy.” She began to count names as Eleanor entered the room.
“Is that the program for ‘Tommy?’” asked Eleanor.
“Yeah,” Dania responded.
Eleanor murmured something quiet and walked out of the room. Dania continued to count names.
At that moment, Gwen entered from the front door, bearing groceries.
“Is that Gwen?” Eleanor asked, from the kitchen.
“Yes,” Gwen replied, setting the reusable bags down. Just as Gwen hung her coat on the rack, Dania looked up from the program.
“21,” she said proudly.
“21 what?” asked Gwen, carrying the bags into the kitchen.
“21 actors in ‘Tommy,’” responded Dania. “I think that’s the biggest I’ve seen in a while.”
“Except Waa-Mu,” Eleanor added, leaning against the kitchen wall.
“Well, yeah, but Waa-Mu is a totally different category. That’s a huge thing in Cahn, not in the Louis Room.”
“I’ll agree that it did make the Louis Room feel crowded,” Gwen replied, her voice floating from the kitchen.
“Well, let’s be honest,” Eleanor said, looking at Dania. “It’s mostly Maggie Monahan.”
“Ugh, Maggie, gah!” Dania flopped back on the couch. “She’s so freaking talented, I just hate her.”
“Don’t hate her, she’s talented,” said Gwen.
“That’s why I hate her,” said Dania.
“I do think she did a really good job in the show,” Eleanor added. “It’s a complicated show, but she managed to make a lot of sense out of it.”
“That’s Hannah Fisher, too,” Gwen responded. “The show is an absolute cluster. The fact that it made even a little sense is a testament to her ability to cut it down.”
“How long does it usually run?” asked Dania, hugging a couch cushion.
“Like two and a half hours, or something. Like, long long.”
“I think I liked the second act more,” Eleanor said, looking back at the previous evening. “There just seemed to be more at stake for everyone…”
Gwen re-entered, drying off an apple. “That’s because there were actually stakes in the second act. Tommy clearly wants something. The audience has no idea what anyone in the first act of the show wants!” She bit into the apple, forcefully.
“I take it you didn’t like it, then,” Eleanor sighed, resigned to another rant.
“No, I did not like it,” Gwen said, swallowing a bite of apple. “I have nothing against The Who, and I appreciate that they actually wrote a musical instead of just sticking a bunch of songs on a theme together…” She looked out the window at some faraway place and muttered, “…Green Day.”
“Oh, you’re just going to love ‘American Idiot’ next year, aren’t you?” Eleanor said as she walked over to the couch and sat by Dania.
Gwen continued. “I just think the show has too flimsy a plot to entertain if you don’t already like the music. Is that wrong?”
“Well, that’s about the show itself,” Eleanor responded, after a moment. “Obviously, if you don’t like the show, the Arts Alliance production isn’t going to fix that.”
“I don’t know,” Gwen continued. “I just thought it was…” She searched for the right adjective, before settling on an acid-laden “…fine,” and walked back to the kitchen.
Eleanor watched her go. She thought about the show again: Joe Entenman’s massive dystopian set designs, the loud but still impressive orchestra under Geoff Ko, the unfortunate mic that turned off and kept one of the solos unheard. She had liked the production enough, but didn’t see what made it so awful in Gwen’s eyes.
Dania sat up. Eleanor turned to her and asked, “What did you think about it?”
“I don’t know,” came the gut reply from Dania. “I guess I really liked the projections.”
“I kept hearing those were live-mixed during the show,” Eleanor replied. “They were really impressive.”
“I did like a lot of the visuals. The projections, that set design, the costumes – are those the actual merch brotanks or did they just make separate brotanks for the show alone?”
“They probably just designed them without logos and used them as merch anyway,” Eleanor figured. “I can’t see a theatre board—even Arts Alliance—having the money to order two separate brotank orders.”
“Hm.” Dania was quiet again. Eleanor picked up the program, leafing through the 21 names to find the designers. “Veronica Johnson,” she said, pointing to the costume design credit in the middle of the page.
“I thought she did some cool stuff,” Dania added, pointing across the page to the name listed as “Choreographer.”
“Mary Iris? Yeah, she was kick-ass. She did ‘Hit The Wall’ and…oh, something else, too. She’s this star dancer and choreographer for movement things in plays and musicals.” Eleanor looked to the ceiling to remember the dancer’s other credits.
A moment passed.
“I mean,” said Eleanor, filling the silence, “She was in Danceworks, I know that, but…”
“Did she work on ‘Language Archive?’” asked Dania, referring to the other play they had seen that past weekend.
“Maaaaybe…” Eleanor hesitated. “Was there a choreographer for that?”
“There was a Bread Designer,” Dania pointed out. “The guy baked bread before each performance so that the actors could actually eat in character. There could be anything.”
Eleanor got up and moved to get her “Language Archive” program, still tucked in her coat pocket from the previous day. As she grabbed it, Gwen came back out from the kitchen, holding an apple core.
“You know,” she said with pride, “the idea of something, or someone, becoming understandably yet outrageously popular, mainly because they’re really rebellious or virtuosic at a special talent, but slowly losing that popularity over time as people realize that this person has another message to discuss, which people might not care about because they mainly followed the rebellious person because they were rebellious, resulting in a mass loss of interest from the general public, leaving the virtuosic one to turn inwards for self-sustainment…” She paused to breathe, and continued, “…is a fascinating parallel to draw between the character Tommy and the play ‘Tommy.’”
The run-on sentence hung in the air as neither of the three girls moved for a moment.
Then, with intent to drive a pick through the frozen scene, Eleanor said, “Gwen, have you spent the entire time in there carefully wording that sentence?”
“No,” Gwen said impulsively. She looked over to Dania, then back to Eleanor. “Yes. But I stand by it. It’s an interesting parallel.”
Eleanor was already looking through the “Language Archive” program. Turning over the pages, she spoke without looking up. “No, Dania, I don’t see Mary Iris in here. There’s no choreographer.”
“Darn,” said Dania.
“Is that ‘Language Archive?’” Gwen said, crossing to Eleanor to see the program.
“Yes, we thought that Mary Iris might have choreographed both shows.”
“Why would ‘Language Archive’ need a choreographer?”
“Well, it has a Bread Designer!” said Dania, falling back onto the couch.
“That’s a show I liked,” said Gwen. “Fantastic script, good use of Shanley in staging, all the right actors for the parts…”
“Matthew Bentley keeps getting cast as the same role in different plays,” came the voice from the couch.
“It’s ‘cause he’s good at it!” Gwen defended. “Do you know how hard it is to yell in Shanley and have it not sound like you’re sandpapering my eardrums? But Matthew did it! He’s a great fit for that part.”
“Agreed,” said Eleanor, walking back to the couch. Gwen threw the apple core away.
“It made me sad,” said Dania. “It was really pretty, but it made me really sad.”
“All the best theatre makes you sad,” said Gwen. “It means you’re feeling something.”
“No. No feelings.” Dania burrowed her face into the pillow.
“I agree that ‘Language Archive’ was just solidly good,” Eleanor said, turning from Dania to Gwen. “I don’t know if Resten and Alta were supposed to run away with the show like they did, but it was really good.”
“Yeah, the comedy was a bit much,” said Gwen. “But only when it was coming from Emily and Katie themselves rather than the characters.”
Gwen looked at Eleanor, and a beat passed.
“Which definitely happened some of the time.”
“How did I know you were going to say that?” Eleanor asked, rolling her eyes.
“But the characters are just funny like that. It’s in the script,” Gwen continued. “Even the stuff that’s serious for the characters is funny for the audience. Like Emma and that message at the end…?”
“Oh yes!” Eleanor smiled, thinking about it. “Oh, I so wanted them together at the end! That would have been adorable!”
“I liked it the way it was,” Gwen said. “It follows that idea that the show has about different types of love. If there was only romantic love, it’d be mixing messages.”
“I guess,” said Eleanor, not entirely convinced. “Kali Skatchke did a fine job, though.”
“I agree. She’s a great fit for that role, specifically. She’s got these eyes, you know? They get all big when she discovers things, like at the top of Act II? She’d be a fine comedic actress, if a role comes around for her.”
“Oh, when do we ever do comedies here?” asked Eleanor. “It’s gotta be angsty, like ‘Tommy.’”
A groan came from the couch.
“Well, not necessarily angsty. But serious,” Eleanor continued. “‘Language Archive’ has its funny moments, but it’s still one of those plays where you go and you sit and you absorb and you understand the problem. All that direct address…” She looked out the window. “Just tell the story!”
“But the direct address is part of the story!” said Gwen, moving to the kitchen. “You know that opening joke, where the wife… the wife, what’s her name?”
“No, that’s the actress. What’s the wife’s name?”
Eleanor and Gwen looked at Dania, who looked up at them.
“Her name is Mary,” Dania repeated. “And she’s the best character.”
“Okay,” said Gwen. “Mary. Yes, when Mary says, ‘George, I can hear you,’ when he’s talking to the audience about her.”
“Okay, I guess it helps the story.”
“Would you rather Emma do her whole travel montage-scene-thing without any words to the audience?”
Eleanor sighed. “I guess not, Gwen.” She stood and walked to the kitchen. Gwen called after her.
“I mean, look at ‘Tommy’ again. That show does nothing but ‘tell the story.’ But you never know how they feel about it, so you have no reason to invest! Except for Tommy, and maybe some of the stuff with that girl at the end, it’s just a bunch of dancing people and some unnecessarily catchy music.”
Dania had sat up during this last word from Gwen. She responded again.
“But I did like the dancing.”
“I’m sure you did,” Gwen said, exiting the room.
Dania looked around, and called out.
“What? Am I supposed to not like the dancing?”
No response came from the other room.
“I mean, yeah, the plot’s all confusing, but I enjoyed it! The singing is really good! It’s a really good cast of people!” Dania paused for a moment, thinking over the production. After a moment, she added, “And it’s all about a female pinball wizard this time! You like that part, don’t you?”
A pregnant pause passed. Then, from the other room, Gwen responded, “Yes, I did like that.”
The room settled. Dania picked up the program for “The Language Archive” and leafed through it.
“Preston Choi.” She quietly read the name of the Bread Designer. After a brief moment of thought, she looked up.
“Gwen, did you pick up bread when you were out?”