NOMADS Presents: Park Beautification

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Crucifixes on Easter Weekend—how apropos!

Last night, NOMADS presented Sylvia Khoury’s (CC ’12) original play—Park Beautification. Bwog’s resident philosopher of fine arts Alex Jones now reports.

The play was performed in a basement room of St. Paul’s Chapel that looked like it was designed to display art, not host theater. For as unexpectedly cold a night as it was, that room was boiling. There was also a large column in the middle of the space that blocked much of the stage from view. However, we should remember that this is Columbia, where space is a valuable commodity, so students groups must take what they can get. The audience, upon entering the improvised theatre, was greeted by a creepy soundtrack of children playing (in a park!).

Park Beautification was written and directed by Sylvia Khoury (CC ’12). A disgruntled man, Gene, played by Taylor Owen (CC ’11), builds wooden crosses in a nondescript city park.  Audrey, a college student played by Lida Benson (BC ’14), has a temporary job cleaning up the park as a maintenance worker.  Everyday, she takes down the crosses that Gene builds, all the while engrossing herself in his ludicrous obsession. Harvey, played by Alex Katz (CC ’14), has been a regular at the park for 15 years to fish from a bench near Gene’s cross construction zone. Without spoiling any of the ridiculous relational intricacy, another college student, Logan, played by Lorenzo Landini (CC ’13) has a huge role in the story as it develops.

The character of Gene represents the sorrow that lingers after a traumatic loss of life. Gene mixes this deep sadness with an equal part of lunacy. Whether Khoury intended this or not, Owens’ portrayal emphasized the character’s instability to an uncomfortable point. Severely overacting the role, Owens made Gene seem better suited for an asylum than a park. His flat character oscillated between maniacal dialogue and shouting. A whole spectrum of emotion lies between these clichéd poles, but that emotion was left untapped. Gene was the main character, and yet I did not resent his absence when he was offstage “in jail.” Without his unbalanced presence, Benson, Landini, and Katz all had gratifying chemistry on stage. Katz’s was an especially emotionally-nuanced performance. It was delicate and fun to watch.

The central conflict in the play revolves around the competing ideals of remembrance and personal fulfillment.  To put it simply, how does one move on after the loss of a loved one without cheapening one’s commitment to the lost? Art should thrive in these areas of conflict. When two ideals clash, a resolution must be found. Certainly, the artist has the liberty to play with and bend reality by testing solutions in a vacuum. And by no means must every play present a positive philosophical conclusion; rather, there should at least be conflict or something—anything—interesting.

Park Beautification has initial conflict, but it yields no conclusion. Gene and Harvey have a troubling 15-year-long obsession with tradition. Logan, at times the voice of reason, attempts to shake them out of their psychosis. For the sake of remembering a loved one long gone, Harvey sacrifices his wife, son, and career. The sheer gravity of their insanity pulls Audrey into their creepy routine.

But no progress is made. Nothing changes. Logan creates room for the idealistic debate, but it never happens. The dissatisfaction of a completely conclusion-less story fit right in with the general aesthetic of the performance. The characters languish in unbelievable relationships, from which they, and the audience, gain nothing. Park Beautification sets forth from interesting premise, but does not move beyond it. No statement is made; no deeper insight is gifted.

There might have been richer emotional depths that this disappointment obscured. Indeed, a girl down the row from me sobbed throughout the entire last scene. Perhaps she saw some more profound meaning in the writing, but I remained unconvinced. The play ultimately lacked the momentum to buoy my engagement on a textual level.

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  1. Anonymous

    Look at Bwog, upping its theater review game! I feel bad commenting on this, cause I didn't see this show, but glad to see a reviewer take a firm stand on a genuine opinion of a show, without exempting the possibility of others. Well done bwog. Excited to see the vshow and kcst reviews next week!

    • Anonymous

      "Taking a firm stance" != being unnecessarily negative

      This is college, not the real world theatre scene. People here are trying to learn and have fun. There's just no reason to be so mean in Bwog reviews.

      • ...  

        I dunno man, gotta land somewhere between the extremes of rubber-stamping compliments and actual review.

        As an actor, you are putting on a piece of art, I'd like to be taken seriously and not branded as "just student theatre." Doing that means taking the criticism that comes with it. While there is an awful lot of negativity directed at one person here, who may or may not deserve it, I'd rather this than the other bs theatre reviewer who just says "everything was unicorns and rainbows!"

  2. Theatre Major  

    sorry you didn't like it... one thing to clear up is that NOMADS sponsors performances in alternative spaces, and so it wasn't completely a space issue.

    also, it's interesting that this reviewer was looking for a "statement" ... i thought that's what a lot of 20th century art attempted to destroy, the black and white "good guy vs. bad guy" GIVE ME A MESSAGE style of playwriting that Romanticism was all about... and this play was an interesting exploration of the importance of routine, or repeated "performances."

    Oh, and one more thing. If you're going to talk extensively about the acting, you can't say things like they had "great chemistry." That doesn't mean anything. At all.

  3. Anonymous  

    "To put it simply, how does one move on after the loss of a loved one without cheapening one’s commitment to the lost?"

    I think this is poorly distilled. This question relates pretty much only to Gene, while forgetting each of the other characters in the play (it's no surprise though, since Lida Benson when unremarked in this review). When we open our lens a little bit, the central question becomes about guilt and how we cope with guilt. Considered in this light, I think each character offered a nuanced statement about the human experience of guilt.

  4. Anonymous  

    It is actually called the "Theatre Department" at Barnard. Just sayin

  5. Also A Theatre Major  

    Umm, it is theatre major (both because its the name of the department and because the subject of study is -re while the space is -er) and you can check by tracking, but I'm not whoever that was.

    At the same time, I'm pretty sure "great chemistry" absolutely means something. It may not be specific but that doesn't mean it's invalid any more than saying "I enjoyed it" is invalid.

  6. Theatre watcher  

    I thought the actor playing Gene's character was incredibly nuanced. There was a definite change between his dynamic with Audrey at the beginning and later on in the piece, and he was really able to tell a story with his more subtle lines. His character was one that people avoid in the park, and I thought the mania the actor demonstrated was really on par with that- have you ever met a hobo? His develops a sanity Over the course of the piece that is beautifully redeeming. His performance was certainly intense, but not at all overacted.

    Also, the idea that the play goes nowhere is incorrect. There is a graceful arc that resolves in a dark finale- the hysteria becomes Harvey's as Gene comes back to himself, and this was done carefully and elegantly.

    This was one of the best performances I've seen all year.

  7. jus' sayin

    anyone who knows alex jones knows he is not usually the right person to pick up emotional nuance

    good try

  8. "Drama & Theatre Arts" major  

    Being involved in the show or having friends in it has, I think, set some people unnecessarily on the defensive. Largely uninvolved, I loved the play and production, but I also think this is a great review.

    NOMADS is awesome, because they are the only group putting up this kind of student work. But as these plays have often just been written, and are indeed being rewritten in the rehearsal process, any production should be seen as simply a step in what will hopefully be a longer development process. I think this play has enormous potential, but I also don't think it's done yet. And this review is probably the only critical voice the playwright will get on the work - as opposed to family, friends, collaborators, and producers looking for and seeing the many positive things. I'm not saying that this reviewer necessarily got everything right or should be held up as a dramaturgical guru of any kind, but I really hope the playwright pays attention to what one audience member experienced and cared enough about to voice, and that she will keep working on the play.

    As a theeturr (so there) student, I know I would - after the initial sting wore off, let's be real - ultimately appreciate this kind of engagement with something I made/wrote/performed, even if negative, simply because it proves someone paid attention enough to see that - not so shockingly - theatre made by students is made by students and therefore will have strengths and weaknesses. Clubs like NOMADS can really only benefit from critical reviews, because it means they've exposed their artists to an actually responsive audience.

    I'll admit I was bummed that there was no mention of Lida Benson's really excellent acting or of the inventive and resourceful art direction (the leaves!!!), but I think other commentary on the production values was pretty spot on. Even if Taylor was going for loony, it should be useful information that someone didn't buy it or was made uncomfortable by it. The park sound cue at every transition was also very indicative of the lack of sound designer (but hey it did the job and was ultimately effective). And I think Alex Katz is one of the most talented actors to show up on this campus in years.

    Congrats to everyone involved in the production for their clear effort, extremely evident talent, and many rewards. Thanks, NOMADS, for always putting up such great stuff. Genuine artistic criticism is going to happen when you're not just putting up The Wedding Singer or building an evening on masturbation jokes (not to say that any of that's easy or poorly done on this campus, it's just different).

    Also I am very much aware that someone would have a point in calling me an asshole for the tone or content of this comment. S'ok.

    • For the Record...  

      Maybe I'm wrong (it happens sometimes on bwog) but I'm guessing the "evening on masturbation jokes" was supposed to be a reference to Latenite. Not that we at Latenite are in any way opposed to masturbation jokes (or masturbation for that matter. Hairy hands are in this season.) but it is worth pointing out that there wasn't a single masturbation joke in this semester's show.

      For someone who's clearly trying to bring some complexity to what has been an oversimplified discussion, it seems like you're being a bit reductive. Doesn't make you an asshole, just a bit of a prick. Then again, if pricks can't blow off steam on bwog, where can they? (and yes, that was a masturbation joke)

      • For the Record...  

        May is National Masturbation Month. That's only a week away. But you know what, I think in the case of blowing off steam on bwog, everyone should be allowed to masturbate a week early.

  9. Hi Jacob  

    I was referring to Egg and Peacock. And yeah, reductive is fair. Egg and Peacock was thoroughly enjoyable and as always showcased a lot of legit student talent. It was also not short on the masturbation jokes.

    • Chris Silverberg  

      (Apologies for the novel below. I'm gonna go ahead and call tl;dr on myself.)

      Yeah. I assumed you were talking about egg and peacock too, which was indeed not short on the masturbation jokes (dear bwog, do you have a masturbation corner?). Also props to Steele for starting this whole put your name in the comments business.

      I also posted the first comment (might not show up if you press the track button---I made the first comment on my ipad and this one on my computer), so I guess it's worthwhile to clarify: I didn't see the show (sorry guys!) so I can't offer any commentary on its quality (other than the assumption that Alex Katz was amazing, but that's an assumption one makes about every show), but I will say that you can't condemn a reviewer for disliking a production. I don't think that anyone in the Columbia community is out to make soft theater, theater that doesn't attempt to tell a story, a truth, a something, and so we don't need soft reviews that don't think critically about whether or not we achieved that goal in an enjoyable, successful, or thought-provoking way. We need reviews like this one, even if they are negative, to tell us whether or not someone experienced in watching and appreciating theater understood the story we were trying to tell, and then what aspects of the production helped or hindered her understanding.

      And it's also important to remember that a review is just an opinion. Since Columbia theater has at most two outlets for reviews, Bwog and Spec---unlike professional theater which has a multitude of sources for reviews---I think it was very smart of the reviewer to note that there were definitely other possible opinions about the show, and to open up these bwog comments as a space for those other opinions. All the more reason not to vilify the reviewer for offering an honest negative opinion.

      I'm sure I sounded very pretentious there. Oh well. (Can we also reschedule mental masturbation month to start a week earlier?)

      Side note: I agree with "Drama and Theatre Arts Major" that this reviewer seems to have approached the play with a bias that I would not necessarily identify as Romantic in nature---though you can't underestimate the importance of Wordsworth #englishmajornerd---but which nevertheless assumed that the play had to have a "moral" or a "meaning." The idea that such concepts are illusory or at the least unnecessary is like the central tenet of postmodernism, and it's very tough to write a play without at least grappling with that question, so I would imagine that is not necessarily a fault in the play. But I didn't see it. So I have no business talking about it.

      On the other hand, don't hate on Wedding Singer. I mean, Sunday in the Park with George it's not, but it's entirely possible to give a genuine critique of how well a production succeeded at maximizing the strengths of its material and minimizing the weaknesses, even if the show itself obviously doesn't aim at being Art, or at the very least, doesn't aim at being something that would merit the reversal of the e and the r in the word theater.

      God, someone needs to call the meta police on this comment thread.



  11. Anonymous

    There is certainly a difference between giving an honest critique and being uneccessarily mean. Considering it was the first play Miss Khoury had ever directed, I found the plot compelling and the way she set up the room aesthetically pleasing. The temperature of the room was fine. Looking forward to her next play!

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