Williamstheatre: Hazardous to your health?

Over 300 theatregoers trooped into the AMT Downstage last weekend as the Williams Theatre Department opened its 2000-2001 season with Rosalyn Drexler’s Occupational Hazard, a play inspired by Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” a short story set in Prague that details the experiences of an insurance clerk after his adoption of starvation as a public art. Somewhat avant-garde in both style and subject matter, the production raised interesting questions about the position of Williamstheatre on campus as well as the role of the artist in society. The following opinions were expressed during a series of post-show interviews of randomly selected spectators.

Described as “thin,” “pretentious,” “attempting to tackle too much,” “not getting into anything or anyone” and “shock[ing]…in a negative way,” THE TEXT itself was met with almost exclusively negative reviews. Kafka fans lamented Drexler’s technique of “retaining some of the formal settings without the wit, the spirit, the trappings,” complaining that the play “lost some of the Kafka along the way,” while one theatre student found the play “beyond [the] abilities” of the “too young” 13-member ensemble. In the eyes of most patrons, the script was an obstacle for the actors and creative team to overcome, an “awful foundation for a production.”

THE SHOW, however, received mixed applause, the unbalanced structuring of the acts (Act I played 58 minutes to Act II’s 30) and substantial shift in style, character and locale between them (Prague to the “Circus Teutonic” and their respective populations) generating a confusion that few students embraced.

In spite of “some really powerful moments [that] left me thinking about what it means to not have a clear meaning,” most patrons left disturbed by their uncertainty of the play’s message, calling director and department chair David Eppel’s choices “incredibly neutral” and wishing he had “done more complicated work with the Artist as a suffering figure” rather than putting “too much focus on the action but not the all-encompassing idea.”

One student “didn’t think it fit together as a whole at all. The acting style didn’t fit with the costumes; I didn’t think the costumes fit with the set; I didn’t think the lights fit with the set. The dialogue didn’t fit with the acting style…but I liked a lot of it, regardless,” and similarly mixed opinions were expressed by a majority of the audience. Lighting designer/set “adapter” Sabrina Hamilton’s projections of defining images onto the actors in the opening moments of the show (“The Doctor” characterized by a stethoscope, “Rose” by a rose, etc.) won much praise for their “abruptness” and “unconventionality,” but most students wished that they had occurred throughout rather than being “given and taken away.”

And though some spectators “didn’t agree with the acting style” and felt that the characters “weren’t distinctive,” the actors were described by many as “polished” and even “incredible,” with Matthew Speiser ’01 winning unanimous acclaim for his portrayal of the Hunger Artist. Overall, the majority of interviewees seemed to enjoy the show despite objections of messiness and inconsistency in certain areas of production.

THE BIG PICTURE. When questioned about the relationship of the selection and execution of Occupational Hazard to the history and reputation of the Williams College theatre department, students of all disciplines expressed frustration at the department’s choices of the past and present; most were “unclear why they picked [this] play” and “unclear why I would have seen [it] if I didn’t have friends in it.”

One individual commented: “there is something amusing about putting on a show about artists and their place in society in a place that’s really not art-focused and doesn’t deal with art in the community on a day-to-day [basis]. On some level I don’t think Williams is qualified enough to be reflecting on the place of art in society. It’s not important enough to [people], so to do that is a little self-congratulatory and [contrived]. If it were a place that were expressly more art-focused, it would have suited the campus [more]. NYU could have done a lot with it. Here, there are no artists to be pretentious.”

This perspective on the role of art at Williams questions the production of this play, which is advocated by another student who sees it as “exploring a lot of issues about artistic integrity that a lot of people should be thinking about, regardless of discipline,” although after opening night she was “not sure that the show [would] be seen or appreciated because of its avant-garde label.” Many interviewees agreed with this classification of the typical Williams theatregoer as “conservative” and seemed angry about the “consequent limitations” of theatre on campus, despite their surmise that the department’s “consistent selection of avant-garde shows alienates the campus.”

Others expressed similarly conflicted sentiments about the show and Williamstheatre in general – one student declared that “we are learning to be critics of society and [the Hunger Artist] is a critic of society” in support of Occupational Hazard as a means of exposing the campus to such figures, but then disagreed that the Department should mount similar shows in the future, criticizing their execution as “lazy” and unknowingly concurring with another student, who stated flatly that “if you’re gonna pick a play like this, I think it makes sense to go all the way.” The patrons of Williamstheatre productions seem dissatisfied with “seasons that feature half-conceived avant-garde shows.” Are they right? Should attention be paid by Professor Eppel and his colleagues?

The natives are restless. Stay tuned. The Class of ’01 Senior Seminar is on deck.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD by Rosalyn Drexler ran October 26-28 in the AMT Downstage and starred Matthew Speiser ’01, Alex Lees ’03, Emily Simons ’04, Jamie O’Leary ’04, Joshua Stamell ’01, Sara Richland ’01, Jordan Engle ’02, Robert McElmurry, Danny Kim ’02, Jennifer Sawaya ’02, Shehryar Qureshi ’04, Cyndi Wong ’04 and Genevieve Sparling ’04. Lights and set adaptation were provided by Sabrina Hamilton, costumes by Deb Brothers and dramaturgical services by Andre Lepecki and Theatre 301. Directed by David Eppel.