An original play several years in the making took the stage at long last this weekend in Weber Theater.
And while forty-five minutes is hardly what you expect from a main stage theatre show, that is what audiences got at last weekend’s premiere of “What Happens When,” an original play written by Professor of Creative Writing and Playwright-in-Residence Charlotte Meehan and the students from her Theatre and Social Change course, which she taught in 2013.
The play deals with sex at college, and the array of different encounters — some bad, some good, but mostly the intractable gray areas — that one may experience over their four years at college. There are only three recurring characters in the entire play. Woman 1 (played by Ariel Temple ’15) is the survivor of a sexual assault that takes place at the beginning of the play, the traumatic aftermath of which is referenced through both scenes and projections throughout the play.
Siara Padilla ’17 and Audrey Aka ’18 play the other two recurring characters, little girls talking and playfully arguing about their youthful interpretations of how we come to be conceived (one contends we fell from the sky; the other, from the ocean).
Rather than playing specific characters throughout the play, the remaining actors portray archetypes of college personalities. The exception to this is Benjamin Sarat ’18, who plays different versions of a perpetrator throughout the play — an interesting choice because, as Aka mentioned in the post-show talkback on Friday, it emphasized that so many sexual assaults are committed by the same people over and over again, not necessarily by a broad range of individuals.
Because of this construction, however, one cannot go into What Happens When expecting a coherent through-line, as with most popular plays. Instead, be prepared for a series of vignettes that exemplify and subvert the ways people behave and interact in college.
This approach made the play’s narrative somewhat uninteresting to me. Conversations sounded forced and unnatural, and while a play’s language should be heightened, this walks the line somewhere between heightened and colloquial, leading to a dissonant dynamic in some scenes. Perhaps this was on purpose, to draw more attention to the absurdity — or the validity — of a certain character’s point of view. But I could not identify a difference between the moments that were supposed to stand out and the moments that were simply awkward language. “I could go to a party butt naked and still not want to have sex with anyone,” is a natural line; “Hooking up can mean anything, from kissing to full on intercourse,” sounds less like a college student and more like a sermon. Such lines also make it difficult for the actors to stay on pace, and thus there are several moments that feel slow.
But these hiccups are minor, and the actors largely handle them with aplomb. What makes “What Happens When” such a worthwhile experience is its stellar production value. It is an immediately eye-catching production, incorporating flashy multimedia projections on a larger-than-life set that is painted eerily white. The multimedia elements created an engaging experience without distracting from the action — and occasionally presenting the main action. Narrative videos about sexual experiences, real-life clips and tweets relevant to the topics being discussed onstage, and visualizations of text message conversations all enhanced the play’s script.
Projections weren’t half-baked, either. Original videos were masterfully produced and cleanly displayed on the set cutouts — no easy feat, and it looked sharp. The sheer number of collaborators on the multimedia elements shows an impressive amount of campus engagement in the process.
The inclusion of a talkback as an “Act II” of the show is an interesting production choice, but it didn’t feel truly integrated. Perhaps I’m small-minded, but the first act is theatre; the second act isn’t. And the lack of anything more than a moral enforcement mechanism to ensure people stay in their seats means that audience members can easily leave and refuse to engage in any discussion that might stem from the thought-provoking issues raised by the first act. But the talkback gives a chance for both audience and cast members to voice their thoughts on the themes of the play and how they take shape in real life as compared to onstage. It was certainly the right thing to do in the context of the show.
“What Happens When” is not subtle theatre; it means what it says and says what it means. But the issues it raises are imperative and urgent. While the play itself is not as engaging as it might be, Director and Associate Professor of Theater Stephanie Burlington Daniels and her actors transformed the text on the page into a very worthwhile night of theatre. There is no doubt the production was absolutely necessary, and the production value was spectacular. The combination of the play’s topical urgency and stellar design, therefore, made “What Happens When” a solid production.
But if it is truly to be a vehicle for social change, the question now is how we use its message to raise our collective consciousness about sexual assault. This, as the college’s campaign notes, is “on us.”
“What Happens When” plays this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 16-18, at 8:00 p.m.; with a closing show on Sunday, April 19, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are free for Wheaton students. To reserve a ticket, contact the Watson Box Office at 508-286-3575, or by email at email@example.com.