Devised Theatre Brings Prose to Life

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Melissa MacDonald ’15 and Eduardo Danino-Beck ’15 use a simple box to explore space and the reality of their son’s death.

By Elizabeth Zhou

The student production A Small, Good Thing, which ran from Nov. 13-15 in the Hepburn Zoo, grappled with topics of death, sorrow and despair as based on Raymond Carver’s 1989 short story of the same name. A piece of devised theater, the play was built from the evolving visions of the four-person cast, director Tosca Giustini ’15.5 and other contributing members of the theatre community.

During the intimate, hour-long performance, the audience of around 20 people sat in a rectangular arrangement that closely resembled a waiting room, complete with a table of books and magazines and a fake door in the corner. The play begins unconventionally, as Kathleen Gudas ’16.5 – presumably a woman trying to pass time before an appointment – picks up a book from her seat in the audience and starts to read aloud.

Scenes of a mother ordering a cake for her son’s birthday, a car hitting the boy on his way to school and his mother rushing him to the hospital quickly unfold through Gudas’ expressive narration. Meanwhile, the mother, played by Melissa MacDonald ’15, and father, acted by Eduardo Danino-Beck ’15, appear, bringing the story to life through emotionally charged dialogue and interpretive physical interactions. The chameleon of the cast, Kevin Benscheidt ’17, continuously crosses paths with them – first as a baker, and then as various doctors and nurses.

As the parents deal with heartbreaking hospital reports and mysterious, harassing phone calls that repeatedly reference their comatose son Scotty, the narrator’s words provide an engaging backdrop that seamlessly connect one difficult scene after another. In certain moments, Gudas chose to implicate herself within the story through reactionary facial expressions and physical proximity to characters. In others, she served as a more passive backdrop, watching the action unfold from a distance.

The waiting room-style setup created an interactive audience experience as actors ran between chairs during action-packed scenes, placing themselves within reach of audience members as they gathered props from under seats. Furthermore, the closeness served to envelop audience members within the emotional intensity of the story. With each facial expression, gesture and uttered word on full display, it was easy to sense the mother’s anguish, the father’s despair and the narrator’s increasing emotional investment in their heart-wrenching story.

A minimal use of props helped to further showcase the cast’s stellar acting skills. The child, Scotty, is represented by a white wooden box. MacDonald and Danino-Beck interact with it heavily throughout the play, caressing it, picking it up and gazing at it lovingly. During a hospital check-up scene, MacDonald, Danino-Beck and Benscheidt merge their bodies to mimic the sound and motion of a steady heartbeat in an evocative human representation of a stethoscope. In addition, during the many phone exchanges, the actors used no props, but rather conversed with each other from opposite ends of the stage. It is only during the last scene that one of the few real props appears: a plate of baked goods.

“I wanted the food to be literal rather than representative as an indication that the fantasy of the story is dying down,” Giustini said.

In these final moments, as the parents mourn Scotty’s recent passing, the meaning of the play’s title becomes clear as the baker wisely notes, “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” The parents, who have barely eaten since Scotty was rushed to the hospital, scarf down the treats.

Despite the sad storyline, the cast tried to avoid “deadly” melodrama by injecting bits of light humor into the play. One hospital check-up features Benscheidt as a bumbling doctor with a ridiculously oversized mustache, which provoked laughter from the audience. Later, the wife walks into a bakery and makes the laughably obvious remark, “It smells like a bakery in here. Doesn’t it smell like a bakery in here, Howard?”

Improvisation of movement and dialogue played a key role in shaping the play. In addition, the cast worked with different divisions of the original text, switched around roles and experimented with various props and settings until up to two weeks before the first performance.

Giustini enjoyed the visual opportunities her directorial role provided.

“Directing is kind of like painting,” she said. “Your actors are your colors. Being a performer, it’s picking the different colors of different moments. But when you’re the director, the painter, you’re putting the colors together and making them dance together.”

The dark material of A Small, Good Thing proved to be the most challenging aspect.

“How do we as twenty- or twenty-one-year-olds present that we know what it’s like to lose a child?” Giustini asked. “You can’t do that. It’s impossible, and it’s kind of awkward sometimes.”

As the impactful performances, powerfully arranged scenes and poignant narration demonstrated, meaningful storytelling surrounding difficult topics is achievable. Giustini hopes that the story will at least lead audience members to a simple but significant realization.

“Even in the worst possible situation, you still have to eat,” she said.

Within this starkly moving piece of devised theater, then, the value lies not in some profound, overarching life lesson, but rather in its stunningly honest depiction of human sorrow and misfortune.