Two weeks ago, a group of drama majors’ hard work came to fruition with two senior thesis productions. The Aliens by Annie Baker and Hope Springs Internal by Eleanor Evans-Wickberg ’22 are the first of several thesis productions that will grace the stage of the Hill Theater this year. The senior exercise in drama requires students to write, direct, design or act in a production in the Hill Theater that they bring to life themselves over the course of six weeks.
Kenyon College Dance, Drama & Cinema Club (KCDC) staged the two shows on alternating dates, so each production received a weekend and a weeknight performance time slot. I saw them back-to-back, and was impressed with the way the space was transformed each time. I imagine sharing a theater with another crew would be an obstacle to any production team, and I want to note how seamless the entire viewing experience was. As always, student-run productions at Kenyon blow me away with their professionalism.
The first show I saw was The Aliens — written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker — on the night of Sept. 30. The production was part of the senior exercise for its director Katie Stevenson ’22, as well as all three members of the cast: James DiSandro ’22, Brennan Doyle ’22 and Fred Rion ’22.
The Aliens was the perfect play to showcase its seniors’ talents. The story takes place in an empty lot behind a small-town Vermont coffee shop, where two best friends and dropouts in their 30s (Rion and Doyle) take a sheltered high school student (DiSandro) under their wing. The Aliens is striking in its sparseness. Baker’s script refuses to let its characters or dialogue be dragged down by heavy plot details, as evidenced by the most significant turn in the story happening offscreen. As a result, all three actors had plenty of opportunities to shine. They showcased humor and camaraderie without missing an emotional beat. I was particularly impressed by DiSandro, who played a younger character so well that I was surprised to learn he was, in fact, completing his senior exercise.
The simplicity of The Aliens also gave Stevenson lots of room to make interesting creative choices. Before the show began, my friend informed me that Baker’s original text included a note that proclaimed one-third of the play should be taken up by silence. I don’t know if Stevenson deliberately reduced the amount of silence in the show, but, if she did, I am grateful to her for it. I understand that the silence is supposed to represent how straight men don’t know how to talk to each other, but I’ve always found it hard to sit through — not because it’s uncomfortable, but because it’s boring. If I had to guess, I would say Stevenson’s production was about one-fourth silence, which got the point across in a much more tolerable way.
After enjoying The Aliens, I was excited to see an original production by a Kenyon student. Hope Springs Internal was written by Eleanor Evans-Wickberg ’22 as part of her playwriting thesis, and, since the script was still in flux during the rehearsal process, several scenes featured the actors reading from their scripts. I found that this did not detract from the overall viewing experience one bit. The six-person cast brought enough dynamite to convince me the scripts were an intentional artistic choice.
Ali Bianco ’23 particularly stood out in her role as Charlotte, the show’s middle school-aged protagonist, who longs to be accepted into an elite institution as a performance artist. Charlotte’s father is busy working as the manager of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and the cover of Hope Springs Internal’s program references this, with a picture of Bianco’s face stylistically represented alongside the iconic “Hope” campaign poster. Despite the recurring motif of bright, almost-naive optimism that dominated the late aughts, Hope Springs Internal is sharp, witty and often cynical. Playing the part of the sarcastic narrator, Charlotte allows the audience to laugh at situations that may otherwise earn her sympathy, like the scenes featuring her dysfunctional family or her general, misguided desire to be special. The play’s best moments, however, are when it leans into unironic expressions of joy, emotion and art.
Hope Springs Internal’s first few scenes felt slightly scattered, but by the end, I was left with the impression that Evans-Wickberg succeeded in telling the story she wanted to tell. I would jump at the opportunity to watch it again.
The Aliens and Hope Springs Internal are both impressive examples of what Kenyon drama students are capable of. The passion and hard work that went into both shows is evident, and everyone involved with them should be proud. I encourage Collegian readers to attend a senior thesis production sometime this year — the experience is more than worth the price of the ticket.