The Women’s Voices Theater Festival began with two very different plays by two very different playwrights: How We Died of Disease-Related Illness by Miranda Rose Hall and Bones in Whispers by Kathleen Akerley. Both one-acts are directed by Longacre Lea auteur Akerley.
How We Died of Disease-Related Illness is an absurd, frenetic lambasting of the reaction of the American media and medical community to the recent outbreak of the Ebola Virus. The play begins with Trisha (Ashley DeMain), a hospital janitor, cheerily welcoming us, the audience, to watch the play.
Soon we are being pulled along the increasingly farcical (and increasingly disturbing) journey of Neil (Alejandro Ruiz), Patient Zero in an unnamed epidemic, and those he infects along the way. The hospital and its staff are cold and (dare I say) clinical, with a layer of false friendly sympathy. It is when their distance is breached that things go awry; hospital nurse Hannah (Amal Saade) is infected in an ill-advised but very human moment of compassion, and nurse Bill (Séamus Miller) is exposed in an attempt to connect to others and form a very festive “search party.” In a play titled How We Died…, it is not revealing too much to say things do not go well for the infected patients; their desperate search for a cure, or at least a sense of community, is interrupted by the corporate-ladder-climbing Trisha, and a political martyr (Tia Shearer) who tries to turn the media attention garnered by the epidemic to her own cause.
Hall’s style lives someplace between pure absurdity and political satire, like if Christopher Durang was much more enamored of Brechtian alienation. There are moments throughout the play when the audience does not know if they should laugh or they should be truly, deeply horrified and, for a play dealing with the embarrassing American reaction to world-wide epidemics, this is pitch-perfect.
Ashley Demain, as Trisha, is an intriguing through-line character; she begins the play as a downtrodden “working-class” janitor with the audience’s full sympathy, but, as Trisha moves from janitor to cafeteria worker to physical therapist to chaplain to full-fledged doctor, Demain does a wonderful job of slowly, subtly, driving the audience away until, at the end of the play, we feel bad that we ever liked and trusted Trisha. Tia Shearer’s wild, pulsating performance as Lisa, the self-styled martyr who intentionally exposes herself to the disease, is energetic, quirky, and wonderfully memorable.
The second play, Bones in Whispers, begins like one of those beautifully-crafted, exceptionally-violent but visually-stunning video games that have become increasingly common; a group of people carrying guns and flashlights burst into an abandoned and crumbling hospital. The first few minutes are lit only by these flashlights; and the flashes of gun barrels, shadowy bodies, and crumbling walls set the tone for the rest of the play.
To say more of the plot would reveal too much, but what follows is a captivating dive into the little-explored world of post-apocalyptic sci-fi theatre. Sci-fi is a difficult genre to write for the theatre but Akerley, as writer and director, strikes the necessary balance sci-fi drama requires by providing the edge-of-your-seat scares and impressive special effects of modern science fiction and the soul-searching theoretical heart of classic Asimovian fiction.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its genre, Bones in Whispers is still driven by its characters rather than its circumstances. Tom Carman is charmingly sympathetic as Luke, the member of the team who is least qualified for the harsh reality of the post-apocalyptic world and Vince Eisenson is compelling as Taylor, the undisputed leader who seems to be at his best in these end times. The most impressive performance is from Matthew Alan Ward who, as Joel, delivers a nuanced, detailed portrayal that raises as many questions of the audience as it answers. Joel’s final scene with Conner (Tamieka Chavis) is a standout moment for both actors and provides a beautifully real, human moment in the midst of the dramatic dystopian climax of the piece.
HOW WE DIED OF DISEASE-RELATED ILLNESS
and BONES IN WHISPERS
August 12 – September 6
at The Callan Theatre
Catholic University Drama Complex
3801 Harewood Road NE
Both plays used the same design team, and different elements were allowed the chance to shine in each play. John Burkland’s lights were especially effective in Bones in Whispers, providing an appropriately moody atmosphere for the piece without ignoring the real, physical location in which it takes place. The multi-pieced modular set, designed by Kathleen Akerley, brought to life the many locations inside the hospital of How We Died of Disease-Related Illness. Costumes by Gail Beach provided a subtle sense of character in the difficult medium of two contemporary plays and, as I said to my companion, it is easy to forget how effective sound design can be until you see a show designed by Neil McFadden.
It is utterly refreshing that, in the first presentation in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, the world is shown that women’s voices address the full width and breadth of human experience; in both pieces, there are no romantic relationships, neither budding nor broken, these women, these people do not struggle to choose between their relationships and their careers, with their body image, or their self worth, and the only time anyone discusses a menstrual cycle, it is to determine if it is a symptom in a horrifying dystopian medical catastrophe.
How We Died of Disease-Related Illness by Miranda Rose Hall . Bones in Whispers by Kathleen Akerley . Produced by Longacre Lea . Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.