Review by Robert I. Gottlieb
My viewing of Kenthedo Robinson’s The Divine Assignment was sandwiched between my binging of the second and third episodes of HBO’s Big Little Lies. The show – aside from being a multi-million dollar, several-movie-star-headlined, extravaganza – was captivating insofar as it does not give away who was killed until very late in the game. It’s a thriller insofar as we don’t know what the crime will be until the very end, but it’s a mystery because we know there was a crime from the jump. This got me thinking, very much, about the nature of mysteries, and thrillers, and what makes a good crime story in general.
So, okay, I did not like Mr. Robinson’s play. By-and large this is because it needed more practice. Several lines were tripped over throughout the course of the evening and the character dynamics – the changing emotional states of the Allman family and their friends – were awkward. For example, the scene where Bey Allman learns that her son has been killed includes Mrs. Allman, mid-hysteria, remembering to remind her guests to lock the door on their way out. Additionally, Mrs. Allman’s relationship with the detective in charge of her son’s case, the pigmentally named Detective White, moves from extremes without cause. Why is she willing to do anything for the Detective’s help one moment and then unwilling to answer any of his helpful questions the next? This might be interpreted as the machinations of grief but I just felt confused by who the characters were. I was lost midway through the plot.
That’s not to say that the core is rotten. Mr. Robinson’s play should be celebrated insofar as it pays loving tribute to the mystery genre. The final, Scooby-doo-esque reveal brought a smile to my face for just that reason – it’s a simple moment in a simple play. The acting also has its highlights. Laurie Avant’s grace and presence saves the character of Bey Allman from becoming entirely flat. Segrick Furbert plays the innocent Stephon Thompson with the perfect amount of delicacy. With some refinement, the play could be wonderful.
This brings me back to Big Little Lies. The character work in that show is so good it serves as an exemplar to the mystery/thriller genre. By neglecting to reveal the nature of the crime until the last episode, the audience is forced to look at the people involved in it more closely. We invest in the characters before we know exactly what happened to them. That way we feel their loss. Divine Assignment lacks that foundation, and so I found myself indifferent to the plight of the Allman’s. If no one care’s who’s done it is it still a mystery?
Conor D. Mullen reviews the Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble
I always get excited when I see kids at an improv show, because for kids, improv is a magical feat. Human beings creating entire stories out of thin air without plans or safety nets where anything can happen is an act of daring unlike any other. Adults… well we’re dead inside and the magic often dries up a bit after one too many cringe-worthy bar basement improv shows, but kids aren’t allowed in bars, so they don’t know yet!
So you can imagine my excitement when I walked into The Sense-ations! created by IRTE (The Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble) and found the first three rows of the theatre at The Producer’s Club packed with excited talkative young kids. That’s when I knew this was going to be a very exciting–and very different–kind of improv show.
Although The Sense-ations! is an improvised show some things are consistent throughout the performances. The story always follows a pop-group / superhero team called The Sense-ations who are attacked by a supervillain or supervillains. The Sense-ations have to work together to overcome the villain and keep making their rockin’ music. Exactly what form the supervillain and their scheme takes as well as what happens to our heros and how they win the day is different every night.
If you see The Sense-ations! you’re in for a wild night. The back of the stage is made up of tables that are piled high with props of every kind you could need. Wigs and capes and ties and horns and goggles and tarps and tons of silly-string (I believe that theatre trope is referred to as Chekhov’s Silly-String). And although the cast was far from using every prop it looked like there was a prop for every situation and I always laughed at the clever devices they came up with (special shout out to the cherry red tie that “taste” was using as a super powered tongue, by far my favorite).
Improv in general lives and dies by the talent of their improvisors though. So, how do The Sense-ations! stack up in this regard? You’ll be pleased to hear very well. The whole ensemble does a great job sharing the space and accepting each other’s ideas. I never felt one person was controlling or manipulating the whole show. It’s little things like this that take a good improv show and make it great seeing the actors switch back and forth between two simultaneous scenes or watching the whole group use object work to silently build a scene on stage. Your individual mileage may vary (it is improv after all) but I am very confident you’re in for a good time with The Sense-ations!
In the tradition of variety shows like Saturday Night Live the show also features a section with a special musical guest. The night I saw the show featured Eli Bridges, but the run also includes performances from ReW STaRR, Craig Greenberg, and Carla Ulbrich as well. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole night (surprisingly) but only because watching 30 5th graders wave their cell phones over their head to a folk singer in a small theatre is a truly unforgettable experience.
All in all The Sense-ations! is a wonderful night of theatre, comedy, and improv. Hats off to The Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble as well as the wonderful cast for creating something I loved. It isn’t the next great drama, but it doesn’t claim to be, what it claims to be is silly and fun. And if that’s what you need in your life, you couldn’t do much better than this.
Conor Mullen is artistic director of the Shakespeare-based improv troupe, AS YOU WILL, currently performing at The P.I.T. in NYC.