Review: 'The Rochester Plays' a commitment

04:37 PM, Feb 27, 2013

Spencer Christiano (KATE MELTON)/


Written By Leah Stacy

If you goWhat: The Rochester Plays.
When: Part 1 (8 p.m. Friday), Part 2 (8 p.m. Thurday and Saturday).
Where: Todd Theatre, on University of Rochester’s River Campus.
Cost: $13 ($10 for seniors).
For information: (585) 275-4088 or rochester.edu/theatre.

Write a play that Rochesterians can relate to, call it The Rochester Plays, and you’re bound to fill a theater.

At least, filling the house with active minds is the ultimate goal for most plays — isn’t theater created to stir conversation? That’s not always the case, though, especially with experimental theater. But here’s your chance. Local playwright Spencer Christiano’s The Rochester Plays is a hefty commitment, but well worth making.

The Rochester Plays, a two-part show, runs through Saturday at the University of Rochester’s Todd Theatre. Part I: Attraction and Part II: Escape run on alternate nights.

Christiano, an alumnus of Aquinas Institute, Monroe Community College and The College at Brockport, has penned a show that he calls a “low-income love story.”

When a blizzard hits an inner city neighborhood and plow crews refuse to remove snow from the street where a suspected sex offender lives, prejudices and tensions come to the fore through a diverse set of characters. A single mother falls for an ex-con, neglecting the care of her young son in the meantime. A social recluse attempts to overcome his addictions. The single mother’s best friend becomes overprotective.

It might sound more like a low-income soap opera than love story, but it’s more complex.

Put simply, The Rochester Plays will make you feel hatred. Serious crimes — murder, pedophilia, and robbery — are main topics of conversation (hence the avid advisement against bringing children to the show). You will not like the actions and thoughts of the characters. More important, it will make you hate your preconceived notions about people who have a dark past.

The technical aspects of the play are executed so expertly that absorbing the heavy subject matter is a flawless process. Innovative lighting design by Allen Hahn (New York City Opera, Glimmerglass, Spoleto USA Festival) portrays equally a snowy day, dim apartment bulbs, and the glow of a television set. Scenic designer Alexis Distler (a Barrymore Award winner) transports the audience from a row of shabby house exteriors to the interior of several homes, a coffee shop, bar and toy store. Costumes by Tilly Grimes depict an accurate thrift store-meets-Walmart aesthetic (there’s a lot of sweatpants on stage).

Sound design and music by Obadiah Eaves (a graduate of Rochester’s School of the Arts who has worked extensively for on- and off-Broadway productions) sets the mood for scenes, alternately interrupting intense moments with blaring grunge metal (raising eyebrows in the audience more than once), Skrillex, Adele and Billie Holliday. A nod goes to fight director J. David Brimmer (who has worked with Patrick Stewart and Sam Shepard) for the well-choreographed rumbles in Part I.

Director Nigel Maister made a few unexplainable choices in regard to casting. While the male roles are played by older, more experienced actors, they’re mismatched to the female roles in the show, played by first-year students Susannah Scheffler (Wendy) and Halle Burns (Margaret). Burns, in particular, remains on stage for most of both shows. She carries the responsibility splendidly for such a young actor — and those eyes! — but inexperience is evident in awkward timing and forced, faltering speech reminiscent of Anne Hathaway in the early days of her acting career. Similarly, Scheffler resorts to shrieking when a strong emotion is required from her character.

It’s senior W. Spencer Klubben III (Walter) who really shines in this two-part play. His role is miniscule in Part I, which gives every audience member incentive to return for Part II. This is where Christiano’s writing and the talent of Klubben meet to deliver a shockingly fresh piece of art that remains long after the lights go dim.

Powerful performances are also delivered by junior Shaquill McCullers (Matthew), sophomore Nathan Damon (A Neighbor) and freshman Angel Morales (Gavin). For Part II, the cast is joined by middle schooler Blair Masco, who handles the oft-grimy subject matter like a seasoned professional.

If you’ve been waiting to support local art because “someone else will do it,” stop waiting. Leave your house, and drive to the University of Rochester’s River campus.

It doesn’t get more “local” than this.