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'Seminar' expertly rendered by Perseverance

Posted: March 20, 2013 - 11:01pm

In “Seminar,” currently playing at Perseverance Theatre through March 31, playwright Theresa Rebeck uses the structure of a writing seminar to examine bigger questions: How much of ourselves must we shed as we climb the ladder of success? Who decides what is good writing? Why is it so hard to be an artist? Four eager learners vs. a monster of a mentor provide a plot rich with quirky relationships, tension, humor and sometimes shockingly nasty language.

In the play, four hopeful, highly educated, young adults have paid thousands of dollars to work on their writing with a former professor who meets with them weekly at one participant’s New York apartment. The writers take turns sharing their work and anxiously await guidance, feedback, encouragement, and even inspiration from their mentor. However, the rude and brutal critic drops their pages on the floor and walks all over them. No steps to improvement are offered, no guideposts are suggested, no insights into the writers’ gifts are shared. Leonard, the man at the top, is an expert at shoving his students down the steps and kicking them when they’re down.

The cast easily and expertly lives in the modern day world created by Rebeck. Corin Hughes-Skandjis wonderfully plays the sweater-vested, rich, East Coast prep who tries way too hard to sound smart, the guy who forgets to shut up, the person we can laugh at as an anonymous audience member, but who we must also pity, knowing he will never make it as a writer -- or will he? Do we ever know all the talents of an individual?

Enrique Bravo, in jeans and Converse tennis shoes, presents Martin, a listener during the seminar, a writer afraid to share his work and who only does so under pressure. Bravo’s intense, dark flitting eyes, wiggly foot, and tiger-like pounces show that nervousness and fear we all feel when asked to share something we’ve created.

Tall and slender actor Allison Holtkamp, scores in the role of Izzy, a writer who uses her sexuality to open doors. Holtkamp’s outfits and accessories -- 15 bangle bracelets in one scene, cleavage in all moments on stage -- announce her vehicle to success. Not always a comfortable or easy character to pull off, Holtkamp does so beautifully, with expert assistance from costume designer Erin Schultz.

The character of Kate, played by Meredith Hinckley-Schmidt, hosts the seminars. In the quartet of writers, Kate’s writing sample, six years in the making, is trashed at the first semi-colon. Kate takes the hits, attempts to argue, then drowns her sorrow with a carton of Ben and Jerry’s sprinkled with potato chips, placed carefully on a set of pillows next to her mouth If audience members need a steady, go-to, reliable character to calibrate the oddness of the others, that’s what Hinckley-Schmidt’s Kate provides. This is another challenging character role easily ruined by overplaying, but Hinckley-Schmidt doesn’t fall into that trap. Her focus and ability to listen to others, to be in the moment, is also a joy to watch.

Finally, there’s Leonard, the big, raspy-voiced, snarky professor/novelist/editor very powerfully played by Bostin Christopher. When he’s in the space, he owns the clock. His use of silence is amazing. The way he picks up a manuscript and walks around, dropping pages like a broadcast journalist, torturing the writer, is worth the ticket price. What comes out of his mouth, those first words a budding artist relies on so heavily, are so hurtful, that we in the audience laugh, perhaps because we’ve been there or we are shocked at how quickly the expert can figure out a piece of writing, but at some point, when the teacher turns on the creator, we are also taken aback, because Leonard does not edit himself, nor does this character believe in the “two roses and a thorn” style of feedback. At times I found the crassness of his language and behavior too much, beyond my level of comfort.

As a teacher of writing, a lover of the written word, and one who writes things like this review, the few reservations I had about this production stemmed from small quarrels with the script itself. For example, I was troubled by the playwright’s need to go to a new place at the end; what was gained by changing locations? I also felt like some of the philosophical thoughts of the characters were dropped in at the wrong places and did not fit into the overall tapestry of the play. But who am I? Not a published playwright. Just a viewer of a fine work of art, a play that reminds me to let go and put words on the page, one step at a time.

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