Sexual tension, violent passion in ‘1953’

I went, intending to take notes. I expect to just plop down in the back row of the empty theater, pull out my pad of paper and my ball point pen, jot down whatever I could about the rehearsal for “1953” taking place that night, try to formulate a few witty observations about the rehearsal process, maybe interview an actor or two, and then get out. Hopefully I will have had time to catch the end of Thursday night at the Log and to do something about the History 262 packet lying unread on my desk.

Two hours later I am still sitting here, transfixed, all thoughts of the Log or history class or even newspaper articles utterly forgotten. The notepad never even made it out of my backpack.

The rehearsal I am watching is the culmination of an entire year of rigorous study, experimentation, and planning on the part of a small group of Williams students. “1953,” a play written by Craig Raine, is based on Euripide’s classic “Andromache” but reset in fascist post-World War II Italy. It was chosen by David Eppel, Associate Professor of Theater, as the project for this year’s Senior Seminar in theater. The goal of the Senior Seminar is to produce a play entirely through student effort.

The students in the seminar take the play’s script as their bible, reading the playwright’s words again and again. They absorb every syllable of dialogue and stage direction, perform research on the setting and context of the play, debate possible interpretations, and make infinite choices about character, mood, appearance and tone. Gradually, from all of this research, discussion and imagination, from the reading and the re-reading, the germ of an idea for an actual production emerges and develops. What I am watching tonight is the very last stage of development for this idea.

I was immediately captivated by the intensity of the scenes playing out before me. I don’t know the story — in fact, I have absolutely no idea who these people are or what they are doing — but it doesn’t matter. The actors on stage tell me the story, their powerful body language and the strength of the words they speak force me to understand and want to enter their world.

Sexual tension and violent passion simmer beneath each line of dialogue. Bodies lunge toward and away from each other, strut, saunter and glide across the stage. The lights change constantly, casting strange shadows, turning everything a sudden purple. Voices fall to an intimate whisper and then explode to angry shouts. Knives are pulled and plunged. I don’t know what’s going on, much less what will happen next, and I lean forward in my seat, eager to find out.

Telling the story to the audience is the ultimate goal and intention of the senior seminar, but a lot of other things need to happen before that point. First, the students must tell their own personal versions of that story to one another, and that is not always an easy process. The lighting designer’s vision may not match that of the set designer or the sound designer or the actor, all of whom are students. Individuals must fight for their own ideas while remaining open to the possibilities introduced by different interpretations They must be willing to let go of those ideas which do not fit in with the emerging group vision of the play. Egos can be bruised, harsh words exchanged and worthy ideas lost in the conflict. “By the end of the senior seminar,” says Eppel, only half-joking, “everyone hates everyone else, of course.”

However, the resulting piece of work, an integration of the best parts of each individual vision, is much richer and more interesting for this work of interactive inspiration, and so are the students themselves. “The senior seminar is a fabulous, wonderful experience for these students,” Eppel says. “It’s the best sort of learning experience they could have. I think it’s incredible.”

What I saw that night convinced me of that fact. The set and lighting design create a powerful visual world in which the actors move with grace and assurance. The costumes are bold and evocative, speaking silent volumes about the characters they clothe. The actors move expertly with and against each other, pulling the threads of tension taut between them, playing off one another like a familiar and expert team of collaborators, which, after a year’s worth of work, is surely what they are. If there is, in fact, any residual tension or resentment over the struggles that occurred to get them here, it is well-concealed, or at least superseded by the exhilaration of a final dress rehearsal.

I snuck out of the theater late that night, leaving behind director Eppel, who was delivering some final performance notes to his actors. I had nothing written down, no interviews accomplished, only the conviction that I would undoubtedly be back. I have been persuaded that this is a story I ought to hear, one that I ought to let this talented group of actors, designers, and technicians tell me. I encourage you all to come see and hear the story, too, in this weekend’s performances. Just don’t plan on taking notes.