nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 23, 2008
TELL, the new show from Subjective Theatre Company, is the most up-to-the-minute representation of the zeitgeist that I've seen on stage in quite some time. With great intelligence and some well-placed humor, it gives us a very sharp look at who and where we are in 2008.
Several complimentary (though not always linked) narratives comprise TELL. One plot concerns a young woman named Sam, a brilliant computer programmer, who goes to work for an eager and flashy Internet startup called "mybio.com." A second follows Ellen, who is trying to work through her husband's addiction to pornography. A third tells of Reverend Doug, a TV preacher whose cable access talk show "Sex, Lies, & God" has just been picked up for national syndication. (These latter two stories collide when the couple appear on Reverend Doug's show.) A fourth is about Frank, a security contractor who is an interrogator at one of the U.S. facilities where suspected terrorists are held, and deals both with his professional life (trying to get a confession that will stick from a prisoner named Yusef) and his personal life (trying to understand where his wife is spending unaccounted-for time).
The thread that runs through all of these storylines has to do with the exposition of personal truths; this thematic commonality gives TELL cohesion. But the real strength of this play comes from its very specific and highly authentic subjects, who don't feel so much ripped from the headlines as drawn directly from our own personal lives. TELL depicts a world addicted to media and image and out of control as a result; perhaps its finest scene is one in which Sam is being interviewed on four different talk shows, seemingly at the same time. It's not just that the representations of familiar TV types like Regis and Kelly are so dead-on; it's the numbing and frightening sense of overload that rings utterly true.
All the stories here are compelling. For me, the ones involving Sam—who becomes the reluctant spokesperson for mybio.com, with devastating results—and Reverend Doug—who may be the most compassionately and well-balanced portrayal of a right-wing conservative evangelical minister in the media, ever—are the most effective. This is owed in part to the expert performances of Stephanie Vella and Andy Waldschmidt, who portray these characters. Both are part of the writing team responsible for TELL and I suspect that their contributions in creating these very well-realized individuals began there.
The details throughout are cannily attended to. The whole premise of mybio.com feels so real that I wouldn't be surprised to see it on Google tomorrow. The repetitive sifting through the minutiae of Yusef's videotaped testimony has just as much verisimilitude. Julia Holleman, Subjective's resident playwright, deserves credit for bringing together the elements of TELL so successfully, along with the rest of her writing team, which includes cast members Heidi Jackson (who plays Ellen) and Matt McIver (Frank) plus director Jeffrey Whitted and assistant director Audrey Neddermann.
Whitted's realization of the piece is deft, well-paced, and thoughtful. A few simple stationary set pieces define the worlds of each of the four stories, enabling quick transitions among the play's many scenes. In addition to the four actors already named, the cast includes Dyalekt, Valerie Feingold, Elena McGhee, Timothy Meadows, and Joanna Walchuk, who portray 17 characters among them—all do fine work. In addition, there's expert video work (acted by Lucy Owen, Angela Lombardo, Nathan Francis, and Zach Griffiths, and designed by Lucas Cantor) that supplements the live action neatly.
TELL is the most accomplished work I've yet seen from Subjective Theatre, and as I said it's the most bracingly topical play to reach the stage all season and probably then some. There's much to laugh at, learn from, and maybe even cry about as we look into this mirror on our lives and times.