Twice last week, when Henry Nash ’18 returned to his Farr Hall single, someone had made his bed and put his clothes away in his drawers.
“It’s like having a maid,” he said.
That was pretty much the case. Nash had given StageFemmes board members Clara Mooney ’17 and Julia Weinberg ’17 permission to use his dorm room as the set for two plays in the company’s Site-Specific One-Act Festival, which ran through the weekend. One of the plays, Housekeeping, written by Haleh Kanani ’16 and directed by Samantha Shanker ’17, follows two hotel employees as they arrange a hotel room.
Every time the cast rehearsed, actors Zoe Andris ’17 and Charlotte Herzog ’17 cleaned Nash’s room; it was in the script.
The student-run festival, now in its third year, is an ambitious project, though not in its scope so much as in the constraints under which it operates. All the playwrights are recent Kenyon graduates, and each of the six plays was staged in unconventional locations around campus.
The plays succeeded when they embraced these constraints and seized the opportunities their specific locations afforded them. When they fell short, it was often because they shied away from original choices in favor of generalization or cliché.
The shows staged in Nash’s dorm room were both standouts. In Housekeeping, Andris and Herzog took advantage of the small space’s intimacy. Considering their unusual proximity to the audience, both actors gave convincingly subtle performances.
Room 22, directed by Ben Fisher ’17, boasted terrific writing from Ryan Drake ’14, as well as a particularly striking performance by Meg Schimelpfenig ’20. The latter played Cara, a famous playwright who returns to Kenyon after she was complicit in a fire on campus that claimed several lives. In her hotel room, she speaks with an employee, portrayed by Mariah Palumbo ’19, whose eager questions about Cara’s career soon turn sinister.
A stunning moment comes when Cara reveals that she regularly sees hallucinations of the fire victims’ families. She points to the audience awkwardly gathered in a corner of the dorm room. In that moment, they become the hallucination, and any sense that the audience is encroaching on the characters’ privacy becomes an intentional element of the play.
The less successful plays lacked such moments. In Steve the Caspian Pond Turtle, written by Julia Greer ’15 and directed by Erica Christie ’19, two children mourn the death of a pet turtle under trees behind Mather Residence Hall. Actors Katie Connell ’18 and Vahni Kurra ’20 realistically portrayed kids; in the dark, even the rock they used as the dead turtle was believable. Still, the stakes of the play remained low throughout; the children’s investment in the turtle never escalated, and the relationship between the two characters was unclear. They could have redeemed themselves if they had interacted more with their location.
Similarly, Amy Young’s ’16 Shroomin’, directed by Kit Fluharty ’19, followed the rather clever story of a drug deal-turned-friendship between introverted Subei Kyle ’17 and gregarious Rebecca Simantov ’19. During the day, the drug deal may have seemed higher-stakes because of the people walking by, but, at night, the choice to perform it next to the post office did little to elevate the drama.
In Shomeret, written by Libby Gardner ’15 and directed by Isabel Landers ’18, two students wait for Campus Safety after the accidental death of their friend. The piece made interesting staging choices; it began outside a North Campus Apartment, then led the audience inside, where clothes lying on the floor represented the friend’s body. But substantial problems in the writing left the actors, Emma Dunlop ’18 and Meredith Awalt ’19, with an impossible task: The calm with which the students dealt with the death was unrealistic. Instead of showing horror, panic or sadness in face of the death, they worried about the logistics of the student’s girlfriend and religion.
Easily the strangest show of the set was the one written by Rioghnach Robinson ’16, author of Seven Ways We Lie, a young adult novel published by Amulet Books last spring. When StageFemmes reached out to Robinson this summer, she decided to write a play for the festival with the Caples Residence Hall elevator in mind.
“I thought, what’s a high-stakes situation that could take place in an elevator?” Robinson said. “It basically came down to a really awkward, charged romantic situation, or a weird thing that involved zombies.”
Robinson chose zombies. In Elevator Music, directed by Alice Stites ’17, Ez Raider-Roth ’19 and JT Baldassarre ’20 try to dismantle the elevator to defend themselves from zombies. Tension builds as the characters reflect on their friend’s recent death after they abandoned her in a zombie-ridden house.
The highlight of the piece? Anytime passersby entered the Caples lobby, the duo ran and hid from them.
Sure, the gimmick became funny when the play itself was not — it is hard to keep a straight face when “zombie” Erik Gross ’18 crosses the room with his laundry basket.
But the ploy caught the audience’s attention.
If the festival made anything clear, it is this: When working in a somewhat experimental framework, bizarre choices tend to pay off, even when their effects are unpredictable.