Our Arts Editor traipsed up to the Lerner Black Box Theatre last night for the first showing of the Columbia University Performing Arts League’s (CUPAL) production of CENTO. CUPAL’s second and final performance of the show is tonight at 8 PM.
I absolutely love attending and reviewing original, student-written productions at Columbia for the sole reason that the pool of talent and creativity here is so exceedingly large. I try to walk into every show with an open mind; as part of the audience, I have to give the actors, directors, and writers the benefit of the doubt that they know what they’re doing regarding their artistic craft. I might have to knock on wood for writing this, but I’ve yet to be thoroughly disappointed with a show at Columbia.
That being said, I walked into CUPAL’s production of CENTO fairly skeptical. In the literary world, a cento is a work, usually poetry, created from quotes and material taken from other sources and rearranged to form new meaning. While the concept driving CUPAL’s production is not a new literary style by any stretch (originating around the 3rd century), this production was the first time I had every attended a live performance of a cento. My skepticism came from a sense of uncertainty about how it would all come together in the final production.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been worried. While the show did have a rough start with some stilted dialogue and mistimed lines early on, the show picked up speed as the performers settled into their roles and lines in spectacular fashion. CENTO bounced from moments of soaring comedy and hilarity to quiet reflections and contemplations from the characters, and the longer the actors remained onstage, the more I was captivated with their lives and struggles.
The general plot of CUPAL’s CENTO is fairly straightforward: Julian, Annie, Melissa, and Nate (played by Zane Bhansali, Miriam Lichtenberg, Elena Schwam, and Noah Stein respectively) attend an improv class taught by a wise and inspired teacher, Jeff (played by Matt Malone). The audience gets a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the class as the characters work through standard improv exercises, and over the course of the hour long production, the characters jump in and out of “character” as improv comedians, questioning each others methods and approaches to humor. As the show progresses, the audience gets to see tensions between the characters escalate as the characters struggle with working with each other to create improv. Through that struggle, however, the characters get the chance to learn not only about improv, but about each other and themselves.
This production was undoubtedly one of the most innovative approaches to theatre that I’ve had the pleasure of viewing and reviewing, simply for how its writing and characters were structured. Each individual character was designed to fit an archetype in line with the spirit of a cento, and for these archetypes, the casting was absolutely perfect. Noah Stein’s portrayal of Nate, the “cool guy who is secretly insecure,” was riotously funny even as the audience felt sorry for his aimlessness, and Elena Schwam and Miriam Lichtenberg’s “overwhelmed-mother-dealing-with-angst-daughter” dynamic allowed for some very poignant emotional exploration onstage. Julian (Zane Bhansali), with his know-it-all attitude and “control freak” nature gave us someone to root against in the beginning, but through Bhansali’s performance, Julian’s vulnerabilities came to light in a powerful way. Matt Malone’s performance as Jeff, the improv instructor, anchored the performance, as Jeff provided a sense of control over the improv scenes just as Malone’s powerful stage presence provided a sense of stability and control over the actual play.
After leaving the black box feeling a bit let down that I hadn’t recognized more of the repurposed lines in CENTO, I realized that recognizing the lines wasn’t the point of the show. CUPAL’s creation of CENTO was about making something original out of wholly unoriginal lines and material, and the fact that most of the audience was unable to pinpoint any lines (aside from extremely obvious references and song lyrics) speaks to the quality of the writing and the immense consideration that went into the show. As the playwright said in her note in the program, “[the play] challenges who owns what kinds of lines, it pushes different art forms beyond just themselves.” Recognition of the lines takes away from the meaning of CENTO: artistic creation, whether in a play or an improv class, can often come from the most surprising of places.
Promotional photo via CENTO‘s Facebook