TJ Acena


The significance of ‘Insignificance’

Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio walk into a hotel room. Defunkt Theatre seeks big ideas in a 1982 play.

History repeats. Leaders consolidate power until they lose it all. New scientific discoveries overturn the way we look at the world and then become taken for granted. Society claims progress for women while still treating them as objects. We see these patterns but never really seem to learn how to avoid them. Defunkt Theatre opens its season looking back at our own history with Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance.

Set in a hotel room in 1950s New York, the show centers on four of the most iconic characters of the era: Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio. Due to liberties Johnson takes with history the characters are referred to simply as The Professor, The Actress, The Senator, and The Ballplayer. While they are ostensibly the historical figures they represent, they are also ciphers for Johnson’s exploration of politics, celebrity, and science.

Tabitha Trosen as The Actress, Gary Powell as The Professor. Photo: Rosemary Ragusa

Insignificance is a show about ideas. The light plot revolves around The Professor (Gary Powell), beset on one side by the anti-Communist Senator (Nathan Dunkin) and on the other be the advances of The Actress (Tabitha Trosen).


Caught in a lie, or a truth

Artists Rep's installation and performance "Caught" flirts with the boundaries of fact and fiction. Is it "real"? Who do you trust? Why?

As I walked into Artists Repertory Theatre I was greeted by the sight a Chinese man dressed as Chairman Mao, surrounded by dozens of automated maneki-neko (those little cat-statues you find at Chinese and Japanese restaurants). Together, they stared off into the mid-distance and waved, all slightly out of synch. The effect was strangely welcoming and unnerving at the same time. This is how Caught begins, a facsimile of Chairman Mao. A lie.

This was not the only lie the evening held.

 An usher handed me a guide for the gallery, attributed to Chinese artist Lin Bo, and encouraged me to take in the exhibit before the house opened. Throughout the lobby were Meditation Stations for the Consumed, circular curtains of blank price tags viewers could walk into and contemplate their existence as cogs in the machine of capitalism. Up on one of the walls was an interactive installation called Cloud Memory, which projected text messages from participating audience members onto a rustling field of white sequins.

Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

By now it should be apparent that Caught is not a traditional theater performance. Nor a traditional art show. The visual art works in tandem with the performance, creating a space that opens the audience up to being led somewhere new.


‘An Octoroon’: a punch and a gasp

Review: Whiteface, blackface, redface, a slap in the face: Artists Rep's season opener enters the race wars and laughs at the unlaughable

At the top of Act 4 in An Octoroon the show breaks down. Literally. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who has written himself into this satirical melodrama, turns to the audience and says, “So I think I fucked up.” Metatheatrical shows, especially shows where the playwright is a character, can come across as clumsy and self-indulgent. But Artist’s Repertory Theatre’s production completely embraces the Jacobs-Jenkins script, starting off the company’s season with a smart show that packs a lot of punch.

An Octoroon is a satire of the classic 19th century show The Octoroon, written in 1859 by Dion Boucicault, and follows the original plot closely. Boucicault’s script follows star-crossed lovers George and Zoe in the antebellum South. Zoe is one-eighth black, and so their love can never be. At the time of its production The Octoroon provoked a national discussion around slavery. But unless you’ve studied theater you’ve probably never heard of it, because there is no way a company could get away with producing this show today. The plot is overly contrived. Zoe is the classic “tragic woman of color” who has no future because a white artist cannot imagine a future for her, and George is a “benevolent slaveholder.”

Joseph Gibson, in whiteface, lamenting cruel fate as a “benevolent” slaveowner in love with a octoroon (Alex Ramirez de Cruz, background). Photo: Russell J Young

It’s a story prime for satire.

Also, no one who owned slaves was benevolent.