by Lynn on September 26, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Greenwin Theatre, Meridian Arts Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Anna Ziegler

Directed by Philip Akin

Set by Sean Mulcahy

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Alex Amini

Sound by Christopher Stanton

Cast: Tony Ofori

Claire Renaud

Is the word “actually” another world for NO in sexual activity? Anna Ziegler’s play circles around this question and others. Good production of this often frustrating play.

The Story. Tom and Amber are 18 year-old freshmen at Princeton University. He is black and raised by a devoted single mom. She’s been raised in a traditional Jewish family. He’s devoted to music. She’s an English major. He has swagger but is aware that he’s a black man at this elitist school. She’s mousy, awkward but scopes him out. She thinks he’s ‘hot’ and tells her friends.  She seeks him out. He thinks she’s nondescript. They both seem to be sexually active, but Tom more than Amber. There seems to be a deeper story as to how she lost her virginity that might raise a red flag.

Tom and Amber finally meet at a dance, drink too much and spend the night. How that is interpreted is questionable. He thinks they had consensual sex. She tells her friends of the night, that “Tom almost raped me,” and the next thing anyone knows is that both of them are called in to explain what happened to the University administration.

The Production. Sean Mulcahy has designed a circular concrete structure that could be part of the quadrangle of a campus. A wall with an entrance is up at the back suggesting this is a quiet, private place. Tom (Tony Ofori) and Amber (Claire Renaud) meet there to talk. The action goes back and forth in time. Sometimes it’s flashbacks, sometimes it’s the present.

I get a sense of the action going in a swirling circular motion so the set is appropriate. Interesting too is Philip Akin’s staging. The characters circle the central concrete structure, walk on it and around it and follow each other.

The first scene has Tom and Amber entering the space and she is talking and talking about something or other that she has been pondering. She analyzes everything past the point of usefulness. Is she being analytical as an English major might, or is she just so awkward and anxious to please that she can’t shut up.

Playwright Anna Ziegler has written Amber to be the perfect annoying, grating person so anxious to please. Claire Renaud plays Amber beautifully, upbeat, chirpy, flighty and annoying. It’s hard to imagine that Amber actually thinks about anything, stream-of-consciousness- analysis notwithstanding. Tom finally tells her to keep quiet. She can’t believe him at first, but then gets it. Tom, as played by Tony Ofori seems to think about everything. He’s confident and rather conservative. When a male classmate comes on to him Tom is repelled and annoyed his friend would think he (Tom) is gay. When Tom finally does notice Amber, he’s at first not interested because she’s mousy. But then her attraction to him gets him interested.

But then they sleep together and then things change drastically. We learn about it after the fact; we don’t see it. At one point while they are having sex, Tom asks Amber if what he is doing (rough) is ok. She says “actually…” but he continues as if she said nothing. Amber in turn tells her friends who then tell friends. She allegedly says that: “Tom almost raped me.”  When Tom hears about this he is appalled. Tony Ofori is not aggressive with the news; he is confused and naturally upset.  She says that she said “actually” to his query of is this ok, and that she jumped out of bed to suggest further that it was not,  but that he pulled her back in bed. He denies that she jumped out of bed. This news gets to the university administration who have no doubt about what has to happen next. Both students are called in to present their case.

Not to appear too cold-hearted here, but when Amber says that Tom “almost raped her” I wonder if she is saying this as banter or if there is real concern. Claire Renaud plays her so consistently chirpy and flighty that it’s hard to tell if she is serious.

Philip Akin directs certainly mindfully of the cyclical direction of the play—almost going around on itself. And he directs with an even, tempered hand. Neither Tom nor Amber are villains here. A problem with the play is that we don’t know what happened, just what each has said. I don’t know who told the administration of the “almost rape.” Was it a friend of Amber’s? That seems likely. It doesn’t seem likely that Amber went to the administration, not from the way Amber is written. And how it will conclude is anyone’s guess but I wouldn’t think that Tom will get off easy. The playwright has stacked things too much against him.

Comment. There are a lot of plays out there about consent. Asking for It by Ellie Moon is one of the better ones. Actually is problematic in that playwright Anna Ziegler has created two young people who know about sex but not necessarily about the responsibilities of it. Tom seems to have had some guidance from his single mom. Amber not so much and then there is that deeper secret about her losing her virginity. It’s hard to tell when the play takes place other than “the present.” If that’s so, then how come they seem so unaware of the implications of sex in this day and age when social media is full of this; of consent; of what NO means, or even the word “actually…” when asked “do you mind this…..” Is “actually” a code word for “STOP”, or does it depend on how it’s said? Thorny questions. I wish the play was stronger in presenting its case.

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company in association with Obsidian Theatre Company presents:

Began: Sept. 14, 2019.

Closes: Sept. 29, 2019.

Running Time: about 90 minutes.

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