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By Bridgette M. Redman
Playwright Kevin Kautzman has a very definite message. If everything is for sale, then there is no such thing as morality anymore.
The political comedy “If You Start a Fire [Be Prepared to Burn]” is the answer to those who believe socialism is evil. It is a morality play of sorts, showing that capitalism is the killer of family values and turns everything into a commodity that has value only for the profit it can generate.
The New Theatre Project is producing the world premiere of this play, a work focused on two millennials who are struggling to make ends meet so they can live the traditional dream of getting married, buying a house and raising a family. However, with Lucy waiting tables while she earns her M.B.A. and Chris losing his job as a truck driver, they find themselves with few options. Chris tells us that “Socialism lost, everything is for sale,” including their bodies, souls and whatever shreds of dignity the recession has left them with.
The performances by Elise Randall and Peter Giessl were fully committed and stellar. This is no small thing when asked to do sexually embarrassing things in the intimacy of the Mix Studio Theatre. They strip, pose and get intimate with vegetables while only a few feet away from the audience lined up on either side of them, watching in a court-side setup that draws everyone in and implicates them as voyeurs.
Randall as Lucy puts in a powerhouse performance, especially in the beginning where she draws out some of the biggest laughs with her expressive reaction to her boyfriend’s actions and suggestions. She often says more with a raised eyebrow than the script does in paragraphs. She communicates the conflicted emotions she has over the endeavor that she and her boyfriend Chris undertake. She says in the beginning that she just wants to sell out, but she leaves the audience with no doubt about the price she pays when she actually does.
Giessl is a good match to Randall and adroitly handles the sometimes-forced philosophizing that the playwright imposes on him. His energy remains high and he exhibits excellent comedic timing. Together, the two performers exude chemistry, and the relationship is believable and its erosion tragic primarily because they are able to show how much they love and care about each other.
Equally impressive is the work of Natividad M. Salgado, the director. She balances her actors perfectly, ensuring that all actions play equally well to both sides of the audience. Even when the action becomes focused on one side of the stage, the use of projections sometimes allow for the audience to watch both actors. Salgado ensures both performers are completely in the scene in a way that tells the story but doesn’t steal focus from the main action.
Keith Paul Medelis and Janine Woods Thoma are practically additional characters, as the technology demands for the show are heavy. The stage is surrounded with monitors that must constantly coordinate with the action taking place on stage. Live feeds combine with recorded ones. They coordinate the chats perfectly with the actors on stage, and the voiceover work is impressive. Medelis’ costuming deserves a mention, for he tastefully handled challenging choices. It is a play that uses pornography as a vehicle to deliver its message, but it is not a play that is intended to BE pornographic. Medelis balances this through costumes that are believable, but do not go overboard to the point they would distract from the story rather than help to tell it. Lucy wears boy shorts and a corset which are sexy, but not nearly as revealing as other choices of lingerie could be. Likewise, Chris’ satiny red shorts and robes are more humorous than they are titillating.
The biggest weakness of the production comes from the script, a script which might best be described as a work in progress. It has many strengths and an overall theme that is well worth developing. There are many one-liners that are quite funny, even though they aren’t always sustainable as humor. It seems as though the playwright had difficulty deciding what he wanted the play to be – a relationship play or a political play. Not that a play can’t be both – or even a greater number of things than that – but it takes great skill to not have muddied waters when you decide to throw so many things into the mix.
Kautzman has his characters philosophizing one way and then acting in a different way, and is frequently guilty of telling us things that do not match what he shows us. For example, the M.B.A. professor rightly points out that the online pornography market is highly saturated, but is enthusiastic about the success of their venture because of the niche they plan to exploit. Yet, once the niche is described in the beginning, it is afterward ignored and their service does nothing that isn’t pretty standard fare for online porn sites.
We also have to believe that this young couple is completely without jealousy, and that Chris would suggest to a woman that he loved that they should sell her. The conversations they had strained at credibility. Likewise the comments about unemployment benefits showed a great naivete from both characters, and it almost felt as though any one of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates wrote those exchanges.
Metaphors are tricky but essential instruments in the playwright’s toolbox. They communicate themes but must be handled with subtlety. There were times when Kautzman succeeded with this. There was a hanging plant that performed excellently as a metaphor for the health of the couple’s relationship and their ability to be intimate with each other. At other times, the metaphors became merely a demonstration of the playwright’s cleverness. One particular element that was introduced was one that created a highly chilling, realistic scene. It created a climax that was powerful and moving. However, then the realistic use of the prop turned symbolic and the ending was highly unsatisfactory except as a neat stage trick. The heavy handedness detracted from what had been a strong story.
The play has many merits and the potential to be an even stronger. If Kautzman is willing to preach less and let the actions of the play communicate his message, he’ll have a piece that is worth surviving and being performed in other venues.
For a premiere, though, his work has been blessed with an excellent production featuring fine acting and technical prowess.
‘ If You Start a Fire [Be Prepared to Burn]’
The New Theatre Project at Mix Studio Theatre, 130 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. Friday-Sunday through March 4. $15. 734-645-9776. http://www.thenewtheatreproject.org