Horovitz Festival: Germs, Rats, Sugar Plums, and Stage Directions

Ever seen a play by Israel Horovitz? How about four in a row? It is kind of like someone turning out the lights, hitting you over the head with a rubber mallet, and then waking up hours later to find everyone around you speaking French; but in a good kind of way. Horovitz has an uncanny knack to pull at your mind and stretch the bounds of your previous conceptions of the world. Last Saturday, Phillips Academy students put on four plays that made up the Israel Horovitz Festival: “A Play for Germs,” “Rats,” “It’s Called the Sugar Plum,” and “Stage Directions.” An eerie red light shone as the hypothetical curtain rose on the night’s first mini-play, “A Play For Germs,” directed by Lisa Donchak. The very odd concept of the show was one which I did not understand until well after the acting had begun. As it stood, there were two major characters: James Mendez-Hodes ’04 as Gonorrhea and Andrew Ostroff ’06 as Syphilis. The audience soon discovered that the square-shaped stage they surrounded was in fact a woman’s uterus. “I got Casanova, beat that. I got Napoleon, beat that,” huffed Mendez-Hodes, looking especially pleased with himself as they argued over past victories to determine who should get to stay inside this particular woman. “Hitler and Mussolini,” retaliated Ostroff, with a brilliant air of finality. And that Syphilis had once infected the two most vicious dictators of all time won him his ticket to stay and share the woman with Gonorrhea. After only a few minutes, Syphilis began to verbally attack Gonorrhea, criticizing the lethargic manner in which he was infecting the girl. The audience soon discovers, however, that this girl is only fifteen and that Gonorrhea has developed a special affinity for her. The prestige of Gonorrhea is ruined for Syphilis when he discovers this soft side of the notorious killer, and so Syphilis begins to attack the girl himself. Painful shrieks, courtesy of Jordana Wolfe ’04, seeped from backstage as Ostroff convincingly scratched the walls of the theatre classroom. The whole audience went tense as Syphilis’s rampage endured. Gonorrhea began to yell also, warning Syphilis of the Penicillin that is coupled with such extreme pain inflicted upon humans. However, despite Mendez-Hodes’s attempts to stop Ostroff from hurting the girl, his rage persisted. In the end, however, they both ended up biting the bullet at the hands of Penicillin, as prophecied by Gonorrhea. In the most bizarre setting imaginable, “A Play for Germs” embodied the answer to an age-old question: “How much is too much?” with Mendez-Hodes and Ostroff supplying the perfect juxtaposition of options. “A Play for Germs” was, by far and long, the most bizarre play I have seen here at Phillips, but a treat nonetheless. “Rats” was the second of four plays performed in the Horovitz festival this past Saturday. Though not quite as bizarre as its antecedent, “Rats,” directed by Hannah Seldin ’07, also provided a definitely original concept. From the darkness of the pitch-black stage came voices: “Where are you?” “Who’s there?” shouted Tanisha Colon-Bibb ’06. “Come on out, goddamnit, I know you’re there!” After enough pressure, Sarah McLean ’06 revealed herself to the intimidating Colon-Bibb. There was only one thing amiss with this opening scene: Colon-Bibb and McLean were playing rats, the former an infamous creature named Jebbie, the latter a desperate 25 month-old rat Bobby. With such gestures as offering her most valuable possessions, cheeses from the finest estate of Greenwich, Connecticut, without abandon to Jebbie, the audience is drawn to believe that Bobby is either very nice or very afraid. Jebbie herself, however, is not so easy to convince, and it is only after a bit of crying over her dead parents on the part of Bobby that Jebbie comes around and offers her help and shelter. A few funny moments speckled the performance, though the best ones were often the subtle, well-placed comments about the differences between the human and rat perspectives. For instance, chatter between Colon-Bibb and McLean reveals that, to a rat, the clean streets and lack of garbage and greaseballs makes somewhere like Greenwich or Upper Montclair, New Jersey a bad place to live. Jebbie, who lives in the Bronx, is said to have really “made it.” Toward the end of the show, a baby, played by Johanna Marmolejos ‘04 to cry, the whole time having been concealed by a blanket on stage. The baby comes to represent the conflict of interest between Jebbie and Bobby. Almost immediately, McLean’s disposition transforms, her attitude turning more violent. She begins to embody a logical motivation, claiming that her own parents were killed by humans and attempts to bite the child. When faced with the problem of the child, Jebbie acts in the exact opposite manner, and grows extremely protective and maernal. The audience suddenly realizes that maybe Bobby is not exactly trustworthy, and that perhaps Jebbie is cold to desperate arrivals merely to stay alive. Just like Gonorrhea in “A Play for Germs,” Jebbie represents the wise, methodical element of a human annoyance. She knows that a rat’s bite causes Baby to cry, and alert the parents. But Bobby does not listen, and is attacked by her brief mentor Jebbie. Once more, the audience is forced to see the differences and similarities of various human antagonists. Once more, in a sort of “Tortoise vs. Hare” manner, the audience is forced to see that first impressions are not always correct. Featuring the hostile trio of Ben Lasman ’06, Clea Major ’05, and Virginia Sweeney ’06 as Richard, Ruth and Ruby, respectively, “Stage Directions” (directed by Matt Brennan ’05) was a definite departure from the typical sort of play. There truly was no dialogue between characters, only recited stage directions, such as “Richard adjusts his underwear, discreetly,” said by Richard himself, while performing the action. While they may not have spoken with each other, the actors still pulled off a compelling display of love, death, and sibling rivalry . The emotion shown by each actor was simply amazing. Major, other than a few slipped lines, crisply conveyed her deep feelings verbally while simultaneously showing the emotion which allowed her to access them. Lasman’s shy outward demeanor was offset beautifully when he revealed his aggressive inward thoughts. Sweeney appeared to bring some happiness to the others after her entrance, but she eventually was drawn into the same antagonistic mental jousting as the others. She continued her downward emotional spiral throughout the play, ending with a brilliant display of violent self-loathing. It is tough to make a play with no dialogue this good, but Brennan and his actors really made it worth going to see. After a quick set change, namely tons of newspaper being scattered across the floor, “It’s Called the Sugar Plum,” directed by Katie Nadworny ’05 took the stage. Alex Limpaecher ’04 played the complex role of Wallace Zuckerman, a college student charged with accidental vehicular manslaughter. Though the murder was an accident, the victim’s fiancée, Joanna Dibble (played by Lexie Kuhn ’04), blamed the death of her lover on Zuckerman. Any previous relationship between the two is unclear, but they do seem to know each other in some way. A vicious cycle of love and hate ensues after the initial meeting, with Kuhn still seeking vengeance for the death of her lover one minute, then turning Limpaecher into her new lover the next. In the downswings, both actors take part in a violent dismantling of the set, contributing even more to the chaotic state of the room. However, these downswings are countered with intimate love scenes shared between the two. The actors’ ability to change between these two deeply contrasting emotions so quickly was one of the more impressive aspects of the play. Limpaecher was remarkable in his ability to steal the show using his various bits of comedy within the otherwise dramatic play. Kuhn really seemed to get into her part, playing the role of the recent widow to near perfection, in despair yet already looking for new love. When her despair turns to anger, the result is incredible and transitions the whole mood of the play with her tone of voice and physical actions. This second half to the Horovitz Festival was definitely some quality entertainment, and at two for the price of one it was well worth it.