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MFA Acting Thesis Explores Themes Of Race, Class, And Sexuality

Bwog writer Solomia Dzhaman reviews the Saturday matinee of the recent MFA Acting Thesis production of Where Do We Live by Christopher Shinn, directed by Ron Van Lieu.

It is August 2001, in the heart of New York City. Christopher Shinn’s Where Do We Live takes the audience through an emotional roller coaster of sex, drugs, and parties, interspersed with intimate, personal scenes of a household behind closed doors. Directed by Ron Van Lieu, this MFA Acting Thesis production ran from November 20th-23rd.

Stephen (Clayton McInerney) is surrounded by a beehive community. From coked-up clubbing with his boyfriend, Tyler (Brian Patterson), to relaxing at the local bar, cracking open Stellas with his best friend Patricia (Roberta Ahrens), Stephen’s life involves a constant set of dramas in his interpersonal relationships. 

Across the hall of his apartment building, the situation is different. Drug dealer Shedrick (Christian Goodie) is trying to find honest work, all while supporting his uncle Timothy (Titus VanHook), whose disability checks never seem to come. Shedrick’s life is colored by TV, cartons of cigarettes, and his on-and-off eccentric fling with Lily (Anya Banerjee). 

Living across the hall, sharing a wall, Stephen and Shedrick’s worlds are headed for inevitable collision. Timothy bums cigarettes and 10 dollar bills off of Stephen. Shedrick plays homophobic rap, audible through the thin apartment walls. The audience gets a glimpse of two radically different lives unfolding at once. When Stephen confronts his and his friends’ middle-class identities through a crescendoing argument, the audience is forced, in turn, to reckon with their own political realities.

The first page of the program contains a short note from Brian Kulick, the Chair of Theatre. In it, he speaks about Columbia’s approach to teaching theatre, including that “This word, ensemble, the very bedrock of theatre, has all but vanished from our nation’s stages […] Thanks to the extended time these actors have trained together, we are granted a rare glimpse of what an actual ensemble can achieve together.” 

Although I’m sure these words apply to the theatre program as a whole, they were especially poignant for Where Do We Live. The best, most colorful scenes were ones in which more characters were onstage. Whether in the chaos of a house party, a bustling, energetic bar, or a passionate argument between a group of friends, this ensemble had fantastic chemistry that carried the energy of the show. Both the writing of the script and the clearly comfortable relationship between the actors portrayed a natural set of relationships. Throughout the script, there were a few very explicit sex scenes. The absolute lack of hesitation and flawless chemistry of the cast allowed for the scenes to be emotional and raw, where they could have easily been painfully awkward.

Individually, the cast was a mixed bag. McInerney’s portrayal of Stephen was serious and passionate, though he sometimes over-acted. His emotions were relatable and motivated, but his emphatic speech felt at times like it was being read off a page. Patterson’s Tyler was a perfect supporting role, complimenting McInerney’s intensity with bubbly energy. Ahrens’ Patricia functioned largely as a sounding board for Stephen’s emotional problems, and alone was unremarkable, except in an especially poignant final argument with Stephen. 

Flighty, controversial Billy, played by Michael Khalid Karadsheh, worked well to give much-needed comic relief, and at the same time subtly progress the plot. Although Billy was largely a supporting character, intended to create plot and drama, Karadsheh’s portrayal had the audience laughing one minute and stony-faced the next. Finally, Leo (Jae Woo), a coked-up clubber, performed monologues almost directly challenging the audience. His callout of anti-Asian discrimination within the gay community, in addition to angry pondering as to the existence of love, were powerfully serious breaks in the flow of the show.

Across the hall, Goodie’s Shedrick was at first largely unsympathetic, with a strongly negative attitude towards his uncle which was not well explained. Yet as the show progressed, the audience saw him try and fail to pull himself out of drug dealing. The struggle of a machismo man trying to face a harsh, vulnerable reality was well-portrayed by Goodie. 

Timothy was the most empathetic character in the apartment, with VanHook striking the perfect balance of prideful yet pathetic. Banerjee’s Lily, despite adopting an English accent that didn’t quite hit the mark, provided a good amount of comic relief to an otherwise dire situation. But out of all of Shedrick’s friends, Dave (played by Robert Barlow), stole the show. Though he appeared for only one extended scene, the audience could not get enough of his eccentric speech pattern and shocking anecdotes.

The set and production of the show were top-notch. Two perfectly-furnished, early-aughts apartments took the main stage, providing the audience with an immediate contrast between how the inhabitants of each side lived. Scenes of clubbing were well-portrayed by flashing lights and varying music volume. By turning up and down the music at different moments, it felt as though the characters were closer or further away from the center of the crowd, giving an empty stage the feeling of an energetic club. A roll-out bar table, well-stocked with beers, provided another vivid location. 

Bootcut jeans, white v-neck shirts, and flip phones did well to contextualize the era without loud and garish 2000’s fashion. Transitions between scenes were smooth and provided more historical context, a wraparound projection of news and music videos setting each scene before it began. Clips of President Bush’s press releases layered over a growing stock market were a perfect compliment to the chaos of post-9/11 New York.

There are many stories about New York City immediately following 9/11. Stories of love, loss, confusion, and unity. This is just one, fitting into the tapestry of emotion that gripped the city for years; but it is anything but typical, anything but cliché. It shows New York as most New Yorkers experienced it, neither a glitzy, glamorous city of lights, nor a crime-ridden hellscapebut as something complex and rich, and at the same time truly mundane.

Image via me

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