Will You Stand Up?
Adapted by Brenda Barrie, Pat Curtis, Brighid O’Shaughnessy and Craig Thompson
A noble mission made manifest in a riveting, simple production
|Erasing the Distance presents|
|Will You Stand Up?|
Review by Clint May
Walking home from another production not long ago, I passed by a derelict house upon which someone had graffito-tagged two large words. Further down the street, a new Luluemon Athletica store was going up. The construction fence hiding the development was covered in their signature inspirational phrases, meant to motivate people to better themselves. As a designer by day, I found it surprising that this barrage of well-branded idioms had none of the power of those two words sprayed onto a boarded up house: “Forgive Yourself.” This injunction—and its raw power—similarly lies at the heart of Erasing the Distance’s Will You Stand Up?. In a briskly paced mere hour, five harrowing tales of mental illness, abuse, and forgiveness are told as monologues in the round. Adapted from real life stories, it’s staging and direction give one the impression of being in a group therapy session. Each person is confronting a demon thrust upon them or grown from within, and must either succumb or fight to rise above.
Lawrence (James Earl Jones II) fights his alcoholism and temper. Penelope (Maura Kidwell) gets herself out of an abusive relationship. Brian (Craig C. Thompson) confronts his childhood abuser. Ryan (Adam Poss) tells of his coming out and the long shadow of his father’s many mental troubles. KOKUMO (Jasonda Johnson) is a transgendered woman pushing the past of sexual abuse behind her with song.
Each character takes the stage alone, rising up from the audience like members at an AA meeting. Without knowing who each is, it’s impossible to predict if the person beside you (or in my case, behind me) will stand up. Symbolically, this gives the affair a more haunting reach. You may finding yourself reflecting on what story you’d tell if you suddenly rose and addressed the faces around you. Who among us can get too far in life without knowing someone with a similar story, or having one ourselves. Erasing the Distances’ mission is to create awareness of mental health issues in a theatrical setting. As the indelible Mr. Rogers would say of the importance of such talk therapy, “Anything mentionable is manageable.” At times it must be mind boggling that – in this era of people constantly oversharing – shame still keeps such stories behind closed doors, gnawing slowly away at ourselves or those we love. Didn’t they watch those after school specials, the Lifetime movies, or just be aware of the social advances of the last 30 years? Yet here we are, and we know more often than not that stories like this are happening all around us.
Jason Economus’ austere direction gives the performances all they need to have power (that is, it gets out of its own way), though the in-the-round staging choice can at times make them a little hard to hear if they aren’t facing you. Each performance has been selected and adapted from real stories (some 200 as revealed in the talk back) to create the most visceral and relatable form of the troubles at the core. Though the show only runs an hour, it’s encouraged to remain after to talk to the actors, the director, and Brighid O’Shaughnessy (founder) to further explore the stories. Every performance feels authentic, but it’s Johnson’s transgendered woman who saves the best for last. She’s got a magnetic presence and a powerful set of pipes to close the show on its highest note both emotionally and lyrically.
Communal catharsis of this ilk moves beyond theatre and into an exercise in empathy. Will You Stand Up? is not for everyone. There’s profanity and graphic images woven by their words that can make some squirm a little uncomfortably in their seat. Sometimes these sorts of philanthropic theatre can become self-congratulatory and treacly despite the best of intentions, but thanks to the powerful performances of the troupe, it remains a visceral look at the terrible unmentionables around us.
Will You Stand Up? continues through November 20th at Center on Halsted’ Hoover-Leppen Theatre, 3656 N. Halsted (map), with performances November 12, 13, 19 and 20 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10-$20, and are available online at BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at ErasingTheDistance.org. (Running time: 60 minutes with talk back following)
behind the scenes
Jason Economus (Director), Brighid O’Shaughnessy (producer, curator), Jenni Shine (production manager), Deanna Fiorentino (stage manager), Meredith Siemsen (visual art curator), Deva Suckerman, Fernando Ramirez (visual artists)