The Senior Thesis FestivalYou may have seen the posters featuring a woman in a halloween mask and a red trench coat advertising the Senior Thesis Festival. The play happened this past weekend, at the Barnard Theater Department’s Minor Latham Playhouse, when Rebecca Clark put on her version of Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers. We sent Julia Goodman to watch it; here’s her review.

Walking into the theater for The Owl Answers, the audience was greeted by a set that could have come straight out of one of the more decrepit subway stations along the 1 train line. Subway chairs stood center stage, with an old wooden track ending just behind them, and wooden doors further upstage. As the play continued, the doors received the added decoration of masks, and the subway chairs moved out of the way the make room for a pulpit. There was definitely a lot going on with the set, and it occasionally seemed to be fighting with the actors for attention. However, each set piece was given significance throughout the show, so that by the end, it was hard to see how it could have happened without the changes in landscape allowed by the shifting stage.

The play’s most spatially complicated scene opened the show, one which really showcased Rebecca Clark’s vision as a director. A pantomime of various subway archetypes took over the stage, from a creepy subway groper to a girl throwing up on the subway floor, to break-dancers and giggling teenagers. Every actor took on multiple roles, and played them to perfection, relinquishing them only at the moment of transformation into the next subway character they took on. The theme of transformation and identity confusion continued throughout the play, but it was this setup that really showed the universality of the story. As the rest of the actors focused their attention undividedly on Clara (Gabrielle Beans), the stage was set for us to freefall into her consciousness.

Beans was a force of nature as Clara, a young woman of mixed race who struggles with her heritage. Her white British father, the richest man in town (Chet King) had an affair, seemingly nonconsensual, with her mother (Dafna Gottesman), a black woman who worked in his kitchen. Clara is alternately fearful, reliving the sexual and racial violence she has experienced, and angry, taking out her confusion on the world around her. With such an overwhelming amount of emotion in the show, Beans let the audience breathe with moments of complete quiet and introspection. Impressively, she still commanded the stage at these moments, holding us in the world of her inner thoughts. Her relationship with various men, represented in her imagination by The Negro Man (Sabaah Jordan) was also a key theme. In several scenes that were both poignant and uncomfortable, Beans and Jordan showcased the initial flirtation between these two characters, as well as the way things began to fall apart when Clara was unable to overcome the confusion and pain surrounding her earlier sexual experiences. Their chemistry was one of the few parts of the show that allowed two characters to truly interact and – for better or worse – cross emotional boundaries both had put in place.

The play was less a narrative than a wash of imagery, as multiple stories of the past swirled across the stage. This notion was amplified by the level of double- and triple-casting – Clara’s father also plays her adoptive father, the Reverend Passmore, and her mother (Dafna Gottesman) represents her adoptive mother and an imagined Anne Boleyn. At times this led to confusion as to what each actor represented at any given time – having so many visions of the past, it was hard to see how they all connected into one person’s history. But perhaps this was intentional; Clara’s inability to reconcile her disparate parts into a complete whole is, after all, the focus of the show.

One of the primary forces driving Clara was the imagined life she could have had in London with her father, and the various literary and historical figures he mentioned to her—Chaucer (Sophia Jelke), Shakespeare (Alexis Wilcock), William the Conqueror (Andrea Marquez), and Anne Boleyn (Gottesman). These four spectral appearances mirrored the earlier aloofness of the subway goers, laughing cruelly at Clara and speaking in jarring British accents. Gottesman, as Anne Boleyn, offered physical torments as well as vocal ones, pulling on Clara’s hair, and shifting characters, in moments of striking choreography, as soon as Clara tried to speak to her.

The final scene of the show was both striking and a departure from the mood of the rest of the show. The British figures arrived, wearing dozens of glow sticks, to witness Clara’s ultimate break with reality—oddly, the costumes seemed almost too cheerful and bright for the moment. However, this did add to the shock factor of the scene, creating an intentional discomfort as the audience watched a rave-like dance morph into something decidedly darker. As the show ended, the audience sat in silence for a moment before breaking into applause. That moment of silence as we all returned to reality was necessary, it seemed, for everyone in the room. We had just witnessed something deeply, intensely personal, as Clark allowed us into Kennedy’s world.