Disarming hate in performance

Written by: Evan Kohne


Is it possible to tackle the oratorical allure of cults without speaking? Reetta Honkakoski Company and From Start To Finnish’s production of The Desk. Set in an unnamed cult, this ensemble work reveals the seductive and dangerous ways cults become so powerful, all without uttering a word during the performance. Based on the actual experiences of Reetta Honkakoski, who plays the cult leader, The Desk is exactly the kind of performance this topic needs.

One of the great dangers in covering topics in public is that their messages are going to reach people through discussion of the topic. News of shootings in America inevitably include controversy over whether the media spread the manifesto and motives of the shooter to others. We rightly worry about the possibility of inspiring others to follow in the shooter’s footsteps.

The Desk largely avoids this problem by never addressing the content of the messages that cults impart on their followers. Rather, the audience only sees how these signals are sent and ingrained in the follower’s minds, and the effect this has on them. This is a thoughtful way to keep the power and themes of the performance. It is much more difficult for someone to come away from this performance with any goodwill or sympathies towards cults, but the audience does leave with an increased understanding about what cults do to their members.

If the cast had used lines instead of movement, having the leader lure the girls in with sweet words, danger would have followed. There is always risk that a few in the audience may hear the show’s lines and be tempted to find that experience for themselves. Instead, the show consciously counters this by avoid the problem entirely, and, in my opinion, making the harm caused by cults all the more clear.

The methods of induction into the cult are shown, and their ability to turn a curious group of young, moldable beings into a lockstep and mindless collective is vividly displayed. The individuality of each girl, originally very well defined, erodes until they are interchangeable. By the end, the curious girl and the obedient girl have become one and the same. The skill of the actors is on display as they can navigate the subtle character traits and show them slowly evaporating.

The power of The Desk comes from the physical use of space to communicate. The shows entirely movement-based storytelling allows for these developments in the plot to be cleverly relayed to a viewer. The leaps of logic that the leader asks of the girls is demonstrated by each performer physically bending over backwards. Their devotion to the leader is shown by constant eye contact and complete obedience of movement. Uncertainty manifests in snuck glances and quizzical looks. All of these elements create a story that is almost impossible to miss.

The Desk’s ability to tell a dangerous story without words should be analyzed by future productions. We cannot be scared into silence on these kinds of topics, but we equally cannot create more harm for our community. The Desk finds the middle ground where it can avoid most danger without compromising its story. I truly hope that the lessons here are carried to other productions. Perhaps then performance will help defeat those that would bring harm to our community.

All of Me

Written by: Evan Kohne


All of Me is advertised as a look at depression, death, and living with suicidal thoughts lurking around the corner. Caroline Horton immediately makes it clear that she has no intention of living up to the advertisement. With a loud voice, she proclaims that the audience will not be seeing “all of me as the poster promised.” “Sorry,” Horton adds. In fact, what we will be seeing is not a performance, but a myth, loosely based on her life, that will be freely flowing from her. Don’t expect something grand, she begs. Just be ready for something real.

Throughout the performance, Horton performs several smaller pieces, from singing her life story to using recordings to create cacophonies of sound. The sound is particularly interesting, for it creates the feeling of being crushed and incapacitated by the world. It starts as breathing into a microphone to create the sound of the sea. However, as more layers (seagulls, screaming children, crashing waves and screeching wind) are piled on top, the sound becomes overwhelming. The audience is brought into Horton’s mind and experiences the overwhelming sensations she is assaulted by regularly.

In her review of the play, Catherine Love notes that All of Me is messy, yet beautiful. It presents mental health not as a simple or redemptive story, but one that “ebbs and flows- as well as something that responds to the society we live in” (1). Horton’s show physically reflects this as well, with lighter and more positive moments giving way to her entering the underworld, complete with red lights, bass mic to lower her voice, and feathered headdress.

The audience should leave somewhat confused as to where exactly the show lands, but therein lies the genius. Horton reflects the feeling of living with depression and suicidal thoughts. Uncertainty is constant in this state, and to have a clear ending or resolution would be dishonest. Instead, it is up to the individual to find what piece they wish to carry with them beyond the theater’s walls.

Performances of this kind are so rare because they make performers vulnerable. Instead of having a polished and prepared piece to lean on, All of Me can leave the audience confused and disillusioned with Horton. It would not be surprising to me if several people left the theater upset that their questions weren’t answered. Of course this would scare a performer and discourage them from such a show. Is so much risk worth the reward we may reap from such an endeavor?

Horton seems to conclude that yes, such performances are worth it, for they bare the soul to the viewer. It’s honest portrayal of mental health is needed in an age where many performances mishandle the topic. But more importantly, the show succeeds or fails squarely on the performer’s ability to hold the audience captive with their performance. Horton succeeds in this, and keeps the audience entranced while breaking many of the written and unwritten rules of performance.

The need to tell these genuine stories is vital in our society. With so much of our knowledge based on the media we consume, having plays and performances that truly capture the complexities of life are incredibly valuable. Whether Horton is acting or not, the picture she is painting is real. It is a performance to the audience, and that is what ultimately matters. So long as they get a clear and accurate message from the play, then Horton’s less polished style is the way we should go.



We are all Vulnerable to Lies

Written by: Evan Kohne

The best “true” stories are almost always layered with fiction. What is a few embellishments when they entice and fascinate the masses? Orson Welles’, in his 1938 broadcast The War of the Worlds heavily with the truth, deceiving audiences into believing his performance was real. While never actually lying to his listeners (since he had made it clear that it was a performance at the beginning and end), Welles’ manipulated his audience intentionally in order to convince them an invasion was underway. In Rhum & Clay Theatre Company’s production by the same name, fake news and the need to embellish a story is brought to bear on the modern setting of 2016.

We join the story part way into the broadcast of Welles’ reading, showing how actors and technicians trick the audience with supposedly real news interruptions and background noises, amount other tactics. This becomes the underlying plot of the show as the main story is revealed. Meena (Jess Mabel Jones), an aspiring journalist attempts to get her interview with John (Matthew Wells) about his mother’s abandonment onto a radio station to make a name for herself. Rebuffed for the small scope of her story and the need to make it bigger, sexier, and more gripping, Meena travels to find John’s family. This journey leads her to Grover Mill, New Jersey, the site of Welles’ Martian invasion. There she meets John’s estranged family (played by Amalia Vitale, Matthew Wells, and Julian Spooner), only to discover a family divided by lies masquerading as truth.

The War of the Worlds is the story of how easy it is to let lies rule us. As Julian Spooner’s character remarks, “these people just eat it (fake news) up.” Lies make complicated and unsavory moments simple and easy to consume. We, the public, eagerly accept lies that fit our outlook on life, if only to help us cope with an world we no longer feel quite at home in. The cast excellently communicates this through their character’s easy acceptance of their own manipulation of others while becoming enraged at the lies told to them.

What the show leaves is a stage where lies flow like nectar and the truth is harder to swallow. However, what should scare audiences is the question of where does the performance stops? When is a lie ignorance, and when is a lie vicious in its intent? The characters of The War of the Worlds attempt to hide this answer by performing ignorance. When directly confronted, they squirm and do everything to cast blame aside and pretend they aren’t the villain for weaponizing lies. One is always left in the dark about whether the motive is to cause harm or not.

This is the great danger of performance. The ability to inhabit a fake persona so well that many will believe that is your true persona allows for abuse. An “act” can be perceived as real, while the true self can be seen as mere performance. When is Meena’s kindness towards others genuine, as opposed to an act to lure information out of those she interviews? When is the news we read intentionally rigged to enrage us? We like to think we are immune to such trickery. But as the show would argue, we are all eagerly primed for the next big lie.

Separating Performance from Personality

Written By: Evan Kohne

The underdog is our favorite role in performance. The underdog is the character who, against all odds, triumphs over adversity and wins the day. Who Cares, a play by LUNG and The Lowry, asks the hard question of “Who cares about the real underdogs in our community?”

Who Cares is the product of two years of interviews with young carers, youths who have a relative that they care for in the home. These carers, located in the impoverished city of Salford, face the daily battle of being both a child and an adult, but never quite able to inhabit either role. They are children, but their every minute is consumed with worry over their loved one in need. They are adults, but they are underestimated and disregarded by the grownups in their lives. The duality of existence strains every facet of their lives. The haunting words from the interviewed carers is brought beautifully to life, making their words all the more powerful and impactful.

In their performance, the cast made sure that they showed the intimate details of their situations, while also showing how each child in their position has many of the same struggles and obstacles. By having all three characters say certain lines in unison, the meaning is extended to all three, demonstrating how that certain feeling is felt by all on stage. This is further heightened by the interwoven style of their lines, cutting off or stepping into each other stories to continue their own, tying them together even though they could be told separately with little issue.

The stories of young carers needs to be told. The struggle of caring for a relative is one no child should have to undertake, certainly not without the support and love of others. But to just read their words is not enough. Their interviews, personified on stage by the three actors, give breath to each sentence. Each emotional build is visible on their faces, and one cannot help but become lost in the carer’s ordeal. To read is to miss the crucial components of the performance that give depth and character to the faceless transcripts. Only a performer can show the hollow expressions, aged by years of worry and strain, or the pain on the child’s face as every inch of ground gained towards recovery is rolled back and worsened.

This is the tragic beauty of Who Cares. Each performer embodies the multitude of emotions that come from a body in limbo, a child asked to play parent before they are even 5. The words, brought into this world by the interviewed children, trace the path that these carers navigate, struggling between bullies, teachers, vulnerable relatives, and ignorant friends.

If there is one thing to take from Who Cares, it is that we can perform roles in life that aren’t normal for us to enact, but that we should not be surprised when it changes who we are. The carers play adults, but it is clear from their words and the performer’s portrayal that they are still partially children. They yearn to see their families back together so the pain will stop. Their lives are contorted to help their relative, but this makes them lose out on the life they could have had. The longer they are forced to take on the roles of caretaker, the more separated from childhood they are. To expect them to be the same child as before, as many of the other adults in there lives seem to expect, is to ignore their changing life and the extraordinary circumstances that they exist in. Their performance of adulthood becomes real, while their childhood becomes the performance that they put on to hide from the world. If we are incapable of recognizing performance and seeing through it to the real person underneath, then who does care who any of us are?

Chores; The Depth of Childish Fun

Chores; The Depth of Childish Fun

Written By: Evan Kohne


Theater and performance are often referred to only as entertainment; a way to distract oneself from daily life and frolic in a new world for a few hours. This assessment of performance is both a compliment and a slander of the art. Theater can be so much more, revealing and exploring the soul and spirit of humankind while also letting the audience revel in humorous antics. Chores, an acrobatic slapstick from Hoopla Clique and Cluster Arts, serves wonderfully to demonstrate this duality. 

The two performers in Chores serve the audience, primarily youngsters ages three and up, a classic scene every person in the room is familiar with. Fresh from their mother’s scolding over the state of their room, two boys (Derek Llewellin and Julian Roberts of Australia) juggle, tumble, fumble and grumble their way through the many chores they must accomplish. All the while the performers use the audience to assist in their schemes and tricks, as well as simply being obstacles as they spray water and hurl rubbish. Both are energetic in their antics, bringing life to what could have been another mundane task every child has had to undertake. Though hardly a word is said, each is able to communicate the frustration, annoyance, and the joy of playing with your sibling. Using vocal grunts, exaggerated movements, and colorful props, even the youngest child will have little trouble following the arc of the story as the brothers progress through their task. 

Beyond the obvious goal to entertain children for an hour, Chores seeks to accomplish something more meaningful. Every slip and every exacerbated noise from a clenched face shows a child that chores, or any other activity they would normally find boring, can be made fun if you put your mind to it. In essence, the performers ensure that everyone present will remember their act the next time a bed needs making or a room needs cleaning. What more could a parent ask for than an afternoon of entertainment that also serves to teach their child the brighter side of chores? 

Chores fits into the idea of a show being both entertaining and deep in that at first glance, it is a pair of men in bright overalls doing entertaining (albeit safe) acrobatic tricks. Good fun can be had by all, but the fun may not make it past the door at the end of the show for some viewers. However, looking around during the performance, one cannot help but notice that even the oldest person in the room is likely grinning. There is no denying that the joy of a child in infectious, and for many in the audience, they get a chance to relive those emotions and experiences. They may also be able to sympathize more with the adventures and struggles of their own children, now that they see the world through a child’s eye, not their own. Additionally, the voice-overs act as stand-ins for parents, as one rages at the mess while the other works diplomatically to coax the performers into finishing their chores. To some, this could be a guide to parenting, as the performers respond differently to each approach by the parents, one positively and one negatively. 

Chores finds its strength when it acknowledges the fun romp that it is, and that the series of stunts it contains are meant to distract audiences of all ages for a few precious moments. But behind that lies a deeper desire to impart something children and adults can carry with them after the giggles and mirth have subsided. So if you are looking for a carefree and hilarious hour of acrobatics, then look no further then Chores. But if you are also looking for deeper message that can extend beyond the theater walls, don’t be so quick to count it out, for its depth may yet surprise you.