Hope Theater Company has been around since 2013, but Recent Experiences is only their second production to date. Touted as a “mini-epic”, the play sets out to explore the political events and cultural shifts that took place through the 20th century as seen through four generations of a single family. It’s an ambitious task, particularly for a 75-minute production with a cast of 6 actors, and was possibly too ambitious in this case.
The story was captivating; we start in 1900 with a young man proposing to his girlfriend. The two are deeply in love and almost confused by how happy they are together, despite the presumed difficulties they face as an interracial couple at the turn of the (20th) century. The story progresses through their relationship and the birth of their daughters, their daughters’ lives, and two more generations after.
There are multiple fascinating aspects of the story, not least of which is the fact that the story is told from a matrilineal perspective; it’s all about mothers and daughters, and the fathers are secondary characters – a change from your usual genealogically-based story. The script does interesting things with narration. The show starts with a modern-day woman flipping through a family album, but sometimes the characters on stage narrate their own lives, and at other times, a narrator seated in the audience provides exposition. The seated narrators sometimes interact with characters, and sometimes not; sometimes they even walk onto stage to take their part in the story. They count the years as they pass through the story, sometimes flying rapidly through years at a time, sometimes spending an entire scene in one year. This is all underscored by projected images of photos from the family album which appear one by one on a screen above the stage.
This all makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and I really enjoyed the director’s willingness to experiment with narration and time flow. However, there were some flaws that distracted me from being truly immersed in the story. There were some clunky lines, particularly in the first scene, and while all of the actors did impressive work, Roland Hawkinsi played two different characters, and in one role fell a little flat, but in the other role he was simply on fire.
I struggled to decide which parts of the play to take literally and which were more metaphorical. Presumably when a character says he’s broke, he means it, but when a girl says she’s been sitting, levitating in a field for three years, presumably she at least had to take a bathroom break or nine hundred… no? But now, to be fair, I’ve been told that I can be too literal-minded, so your mileage may vary here. On the other hand, I am quite certain that the description of the play and its reality didn’t completely line up. Certainly Recent Experiences tells the story of generations of a family through an entire century, but after the end of World War 2, events outside the family home are only barely mentioned, and even the costumes and set/prop changes give only the slightest hint of the outside world. After reading the description of the show and seeing the poster on the outside of the Phoenix Theater, I was expecting it and felt that I was continually waiting for political and social events to take a larger role. Even without these expectations, I imagine one might leave the theater wondering, “So what?” Each generation of women has its meditation on the meaning and nature of happiness, but it doesn’t quite feel like enough to tie it all together.
Overall, the cast performances, the individual characters’ storylines, and the unique narration style were enough to make me feel that the show was worth the time it took to see. However, I may have felt differently if I had paid the $15 price for my seat, or if it had been warmer out on Friday night. Despite this, I am keeping my eye on Hope Theater Company and hope to see what else they come up with. Their mission statement, “to connect cultures by creating theatrical experiences that address our common human apprehensions”, is one I applaud. The back of the program lists possible future productions, mostly pieces penned by executive/artistic director Kiomars Moradi, who also authored Hope‘s first production, Love Letters from the Middle East (which former Aisle Sayer Sophie Kerman called “devastating” in its realism back in 2013). I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next!
Hope Theater Company presents Recent Experiences by Nadia Ross & Jacob Wren, April 20-May 1, 2016 at the Phoenix Theater, 2605 Hennepin Ave S, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $15 or $12 for students/seniors at www.hopetheatercompany.com