The author wishes to disclose that they will be directing for Underscore’s upcoming Chicago Musical Theatre Festival. However, they have had no involvement in the production of Proxy.
“So it’s based on the Slenderman stabbing, right?”
Gwen gave a non-committal shrug. “They never outright say that. It could be any attack between two kids.”
“But they talk about the faceless man and everything,” Eleanor added. “The painting Ronnie shows off definitely looks just like him.”
“I was convinced he was going to show up outside the door at some point,” said Dania. “Like, if you keep setting up that the door can open magically, you throw that haze in the second time it happens…I mean, maybe it’s just me wanting spectacle…”
“No, the were certainly building a sort of magical realism into the piece that was never fully paid off,” Gwen said. “For the most part, the show is a relationship drama about confronting the past. The supernatural elements, if there are any to be spoken of, fade away.”
“I liked Ronnie as a character, though,” Eleanor said. “There’s a quiet desperation to her that’s very dramatically intriguing. You really get the sense that she’s been in solitary confinement for fifteen years, as though she’s essentially still a child.”
“I liked Tessa Dettman’s performance, for sure,” Gwen agreed. “Out of the whole cast, she has the most controlled, regimented vocal performance, which serves the character. I’m just not sure I loved the character as much.”
“I couldn’t get a handle on what she wanted,” Gwen continued. “At the beginning, they talk about how excited she is to give the interview to this unknown reporter, but once they’re in the room together I felt the tension seep out.”
“See, I thought those were the most tense moments,” Eleanor countered. “Watching Vanessa…sorry, Gwen…squirm while Ronnie is repeating the events of the case, seeing her go through regret about pitching the story idea to her boss, coming out of the room and crying into her brother. All of that felt palpable, like there was some real trauma being faced.”
“I mean, is there any trauma Vanessa isn’t facing in this play?” asked Dania. “Between the previous stabbing, and the relationship to the family, and to her dad, and to her boss, and her own career, and the website she writes for, and her…”
“It’s a play that keeps a lot of balls in the air at once,” Gwen summed up. “Though, to its credit, it does balance them all fairly well. The book does a nice job of weaving everything together so it feels like one cohesive story, rather than a series of diversions from the main plot.”
“What would you say the main plot is?” Eleanor asked. “I kept going back and forth.”
“The family dynamic, obviously,” Gwen replied. “Vanessa being distant from the family and learning to bring them back into her life.”
“Maybe thematically, sure,” Eleanor said. “But the whole show centers on the interview with Ronnie. It still felt a bit like the play was diverting away from that center to give more time to the periphery characters. Which is fine, but I wasn’t seeing the connection between them.”
“The brother confused me,” Dania said. “They said at the beginning that he’s someone who doesn’t know what he wants yet, but by the end…”
She paused to reconsider the play. Kyle Kite, as the perpetually weed-smoking brother, had initially gripped her as a necessary contrast to his uptight, work-focused sister, Vanessa –– the initially indomitable Carisa Gonzalez. Early songs, like “To Find Who I Am,” presented their lost relationship through an easy-going number full of clever lyrics and simple melodies. But as the show moved into its second act, and the stakes ramped up, the brother seemed to get left behind for the more dramatic relationships.
“I don’t think he even sings in Act II,” Dania replied. “Does Doug sing either?”
“Doug…” Eleanor groaned. “I was torn on Doug.”
“I’m not, Doug’s the worst,” Gwen cut in. “Not the actor, obviously, but the character. Flying out to see Vanessa and constantly derailing her writing. I’m with Vanessa, I couldn’t figure out why he kept persuading her not to write a story that had already been approved by the Board.”
“He felt like a device more than a character to me,” Eleanor said. “A ticking clock, something to keep Vanessa going back to interview Ronnie. I don’t know if the romantic angle about him needed to be in the musical…”
“Yeah, in a show already full of so many other plot threads, that’s the one I’d remove,” Dania agreed.
“The musical has an interesting trajectory regarding emotional focus,” Gwen began. “I think we can all agree that Vanessa is the protagonist of the story. Partially because it’s her trauma that ties all the characters together, partially because Carisa Gonzalez gives such a knockout performance –– the production takes full advantage of its microscopic venue by not holding back on any subtlety regarding her past trauma.”
“Yeah, for sure,” Dania said. “And both of her outfits were excellent.”
“Christina Leinicke knows how to design costumes,” Eleanor said. “And the scenic and light design weren’t bad, either.”
“Anyway,” Gwen repeated, pulling the conversation back on track. “Vanessa’s the protagonist. During Act I, the main supporting roles feel like the brother and Doug, since they have the most development with Vanessa.”
“The mom felt a touch underwritten during the first act, however,” Eleanor began, leading immediately into another thought, “once we got into Act II it was obvious why the mom came off the way she did before, and I didn’t mind it as much.”
“I liked Jenny Rudnick as the mom,” Dania said. “They should have brought her an ice cream!”
“She sometimes gets lost in scenes with Vanessa and Sean together, since both actors have such great stage presence,” Eleanor said. “But once you get to her solo numbers, she holds her own against the rest of the cast. Playing a role where your relationship to the protagonist is ‘someone who keeps being ignored’ is a difficult task.”
“It can’t be an easy show to perform, for the actors,” Gwen observed. “The content is heavy at times, that’s clear enough. But the score is deceptively difficult, too. All that belting, with the driving rock score underneath…”
“Wait, let’s hash this out, because I was torn,” Eleanor interrupted. “Was it punk rock?”
“Yes,” Gwen answered.
“No, Dania replied, simultaneously.
A moment’s hesitation rested between the three of them, before Gwen offered an inviting hand to Dania.
“Isn’t punk rock supposed to have some sort of angst to it?” Dania asked. “There’s depth in the songs, obviously, but most musicals have depth in the songs. ‘Punk rock’ to me is something like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or Spring Awakening, something with hard guitar riffs or heavy drums. If Proxy is punk rock, then Next To Normal is punk rock.”
“What is it, then?”
“I don’t know, ‘modern?'” Dania suggested. “Normal rock? Lots of new musicals have a piano/drum/guitar/bass pit orchestra. I’d say it’s rarer today for a musical to be written for an orchestra.”
“Whatever it is, it fits the style the musical is aiming for,” said Gwen. “The score never feels like it gets in the way of the drama, but always helps give the scene the correct tone.”
“‘Punk rock,’ for me, implies the sort of virtuosic screlting that gets in the way of the story,” Eleanor clarified. “If the show were actually punk rock, the bombast of the performances would overpower any subtlety in the acting. But like you say, Gwen, the music always works in tandem with the story.”
“The pit did a nice job, too,” Dania added. “Sometimes the drums were a notch too loud, even with the actors using mics. But besides that, nothing to complain about in music.”
“The story shifts –– this is what I was saying, earlier,” Gwen repeated. “The second act shifts the focus in this interesting way, where the plot suddenly pivots to be about Vanessa and her mother, without feeling too jarring for the audience.”
“Well, it surprised me, but it surprised Vanessa, too,” Eleanor said. “As an audience surrogate character, I felt like I was always on the same page as Vanessa, so I could follow all the complex threads the musical touches on.”
“The marketing for the show mentioned something along the lines of ‘confront her estranged family,’ in passing, but the main sell of the marketing was the interview with Ronnie. This was supposed to be a story about Vanessa confronting the person who most hurt her.”
“Well, in a subtle sort of way, it still is,” Dania argued. “By the end.”
“That parallel between audience expectation and Vanessa’s own reasons for going back home make for an engaging experience watching the show,” Eleanor added. “Even if there are little imperfections in the script –– and it’s a world premiere, things are still liquid –– the core question that the musical is built around provides enough stimulation that I’m not thinking too hard about the craft of it.”
“When did those stabbings happen?” Dania asked. “Wasn’t it only a few years ago?”
“Yeah, 2014, why?”
“Just wondering,” Dania said. Fifteen years after the real stabbing would be 2029. Perhaps the musical would give the victim some ideas about dealing with her assailants.
Image Credit: (left to right) Kyle Kite, Tessa Dettman, Carisa Gonzalez, Michael Mejia and Jenny Rudnick / Photo: Michael Brosilow