I admit it. I wanted to review San Diego REP’s production of The Exit Interview because it’s about academia. As a full-time professor who freelances (with the emphasis on “free”) theatre reviews I’m always interested in how writers portray academics.
In the case of The Exit Interview, writer William Missouri Downs contrasts two seemingly opposing views of theatrical production: Bertolt Brecht’s distancing (or alienation) effect and Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre.” Brecht advocated forcing audiences to act as critics (and, perhaps, change agents) by eliminating the so-called “fourth wall” between actor and audience through techniques that would serve to keep the audience from becoming involved with the characters. Grotowski advocated what might be regarded as the opposite: breaking down the fourth wall in order to engage the audience with the actors, thus allowing actor and audience to “co-create” the performance. Of course, what is similar between the two approaches is that they break down the fourth wall, albeit for different purposes.
Ok, this last paragraph is what you get for reading a theatre review written by a college professor.
Mr. Downs illustrates alienation and poor theatre separately in the two acts of The Exit Interview (and, fortunately, I didn’t have to figure out these two positions – slides in each act announced their presence). Act 1 focuses on alienation. Richard (who, much to his constant dismay, is continually called “Dick”) Fig (Herbert Siguenza) has been let go from the university at which he has been teaching while finishing a dissertation on Brecht. Before he departs, however, he meets with a low-level functionary named Eunice (Linda Libby) for an exit interview. The interview’s inane (and loaded) questions prompt Richard to comment on many things that are not related to his work experience, mostly problems with communication. It seems that Richard has difficulty with the people in his life because he hates small talk but loves to express his opinion on controversial topics.
Eunice, on the other hand, has been abused by the university hierarchy, which has created a hell-like office for her in a storage room, while the cheerleading squad practices nearby and may be heard anytime her door is open. In turn, Eunice takes out her frustrations on anyone she can.
While the Act 1 characters are distancing because they’re not particularly sympathetic, the author also throws in some other techniques designed to be alienating, including appearing (on film) to dictate a mid-scene change of plot and adding German accents for the actors (at least for a while). One does, indeed, go into intermission feeling alienated.
Act 2 announces itself as Poor Theatre. Richard and Eunice are still around, but suddenly they are being threatened by a shooter who is loose on campus. Their Act 2 characters are more sympathetic, particularly as they stick closer to each other while they watch for text messages from the campus police to understand where the shooter might be located. Of course, Mr. Downs also interprets “poor theatre” in financial terms, so we have interruptions for commercials and product placements within scenes. But, Brecht is not gone completely; he’s shown testifying to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The author also returns with another mid-scene set of revisions and again insists on German accents.
Curiouser and curiouser.
You’ve probably guessed that we’ve got a satire going here, and, in fact, there’s quite a few laugh-out-loud lines. There’s also some pretty good send-ups of media conventions, some references to Obama and Romney that will be dated in six weeks, a funny “debate” about religion, and a lot of references that theatre insiders will catch. In fact, if audiences for The Exit Interview could consist entirely of other actors, it would be uproarious. I wonder, though, if audiences not used to “co-creating” will be enticed to join the process.
They didn’t get much about academia right, though. Except for the texts – there would have been many texts from campus police.
Doesn’t much matter, though. The actors are all more than fine (besides Mr. Siguenza and Ms. Libby, the other roles are played by JoAnne Glover, Lisel Gorell-Getz, Fran Gercke, and Nick Cagle). REP artistic director Sam Woodhouse stages with tongue firmly in cheek. And, everyone looks as though they’re having a good time.
The production is part of a program from the National New Play Network to produce a “rolling” world premiere in five different cities across the country. Each production is supposedly unique, and the play is unusual enough that it would be fun to compare notes.
Brecht and Grotowski would probably be scratching their heads about what their ideas had wrought, but I say as long as fun is being had all’s right with the world.
Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. (except preview Sunday). Performances also are scheduled on selected Saturdays at 2 p.m. and selected Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Please visit www.sdrep.org for specific days and times.
Theatre: The Lyceum Space San Diego REPertory Theatre 79 Horton Plaza San Diego, Calif. 92101-6144
Prices: Tickets: $31 to $57 / Students $18 Discounts for groups, seniors and military also available. San Diego REP Box Office (619) 544-1000 Tickets available for purchase online at www.sdrep.org. Four hours free parking in the Horton Plaza Garage with validation at the theatre.