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The Length of a Pop Song
by Taylor Gruenloh
Directed by Karen Pierce
Tesseract Theatre Company
July 9, 2022

Donna Parrone, Rhiannon Skye Creighton
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

 

The Tesseract Theatre Company is opening its 2022 Summer New Play Series with an emotional work by the company’s Artistic Director, Taylor Gruenloh. The Length of a Pop Song is a somewhat heavy play, featuring some particularly frank discussions of difficult topics. It’s not without hope, however, portraying one young woman’s struggle with her own difficult life and how to deal with the way she has been treated by others. It focuses on three important relationships in her life–two with people, and one with pop music. Ultimately, it’s a compelling, well-acted piece, although there are some structural issues. 

The Length of a Pop Song isn’t very long, actually. It runs about 95 minutes with no intermission, but a lot happens in those 95 minutes. It’s told in a non-linear fashion, with a “present day” story intersecting with flashbacks and some sequences that seem to be set in the mind of the central character, Lex (Rhiannon Skye Creighton). Lex was once an aspiring songwriter with big ideas about how pop music speaks into her own life and the lives of others, but she seems to have given up on writing lately, as well as on life itself.  She has had a hard life, with a devout Catholic mother, Anna (Donna Parrone), who has been somewhat emotionally distant and who Lex perceives as judgmental, and a philandering father who doesn’t seem to care much about his own family. The story begins as Lex comes home after being away for a long time, after a life of drug addiction, self-harm, and being mistreated, abused, and assaulted by various men. When a video of her being assaulted is put up online, she becomes involved in a court case against the perpetrators, but isn’t sure she wants to continue participating. Anna is trying to connect with her daughter, owning up to her mistakes as a mother, while Lex continues to lash out and push her away. All the while, childhood best friend Oliver (Kelvin Urday) is there as something of a sounding board/moral compass/conscience figure, although it’s not always clear when he’s actually there or when he’s only in Lex’s imagination. Also, the music and lyrics keep coming back as a recurring theme, until ultimately Lex has to decide what to do about her own life, as well as her relationships and her music.

For the most part, this is a fascinating play, with well-drawn characters and especially strong performances, led by Creighton in a dynamic, emotionally volatile portrayal of Lex. Through her performance, we get to see the the full range of her character–from the pain, cynicism, and self-hatred to the sense of idealism and hope that once was there and could still be there. Her relationships with Urday as Oliver and especially Parrone as Anna are credible and compelling. Parrone is also strong as Anna, a woman who obviously loves her daughter, and is struggling greatly to understand her and, especially, to help her. Urday is also excellent as the encouraging Oliver, who tries to see the best in Lex even when she can’t see it herself. The acting and pacing are excellent here, as is Creighton’s singing in her performance of the original song “Again” by Gruenloh, Gracie Sartin, and Teddy Luecke. There are also simple but effective production values–a good basic set by Brittanie Gunn, atmospheric lighting by Kevin Bowman, and strong sound design by Gruenloh. 

It’s a promising play, but does have its confusing moments, as the blend of present-day story, flashback, and conscience/imagination can be hard to follow at times, and there are several moments where I wish Anna was given a little more to say in response to some of Lex’s accusations. Still, it’s a thoughtful, highly emotional drama, with a strong cast and simple but effective staging. There is some sensitive subject matter-including drug use, sexual assault, self-harm, and suicide, and there is a general warning posted in the theatre. Ultimately, though, this is a play that doesn’t leave the audience with despair, and although the relationship struggles can be difficult, there is obvious care and love on display.  The Length of A Pop Song is a promising new play, well worth seeing.

Kelvin Urday, Rhiannon Skye Creighton, Donna Parrone
Photo by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company is presenting The Length of a Pop Song at the Marcelle Theatre until July 17, 2022

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Orders
by Kevin D. Ferguson
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 15, 2014

David Smithson, Brenna Whitehurst Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

David Smithson, Brenna Whitehurst
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company’s latest production, Orders by Kevin D. Ferguson, explores issues of faith, love, and duty. It’s an intriguing play with a fascinating premise along with timely and thought-provoking situations. Tesseract’s production is technically proficient in its simple staging, although uneven casting makes the story somewhat difficult to completely believe.

Orders provides much to think about as young lovers Maggie (Brenna Whitehurst) and Troy (David Smithson) deal with their own personal issues of faith and duty. Maggie is a devout Catholic, dutifully saying her prayers and attending confession, and trying to reconcile her devotion with Troy’s general apathy about the subject, as well as his inability to hold a job.  When Troy suddenly joins the Marines and Maggie is confronted with an unusual experience that leads her to believe she’s being called to become a nun, their relationship becomes even more complicated. Maggie also has a challenging relationship with her best friend Adam (Jarris Williams), a fun-loving guy who is seriously considering his commitment to his devoted Marine boyfriend Joe (Maalik Shakour), who is currently deployed in Afghanistan and is shown reciting letters to Adam, Maggie and Troy.  Maggie’s frequent trips to the confessional reveal her conflicted thoughts about her own religious beliefs and her desire to serve God on the one hand, and her concerns with certain teachings of the Catholic church–such as its teachings about same-sex relationships such as Adam’s and Joe’s–on the other.

This is a very fascinating play in terms of script. A lot of concepts are brought together and enacted in intriguing ways, with well-defined and relatable characters.  The ending is perhaps too simplistic, although I wonder if the problem there is really with the script, or with the cast.  The uneven performances sometimes make the play difficult to follow, especially in the critical scenes of Maggie’s devotional life.  Whitehurst has some good moments, usually in her scenes with the excellent Williams and Smithson, although perhaps the most central aspect of her character–her devout Catholic faith–is difficult to believe, as Whitehurst recites the prayers and confessions with very little sense of conviction. These scenes, which should be crucial to understanding Maggie’s dilemma, only add more confusion because of the lackluster an unenthusiastic line delivery. Smithson as Troy is in a similar situation, although his initially subdued performance does gain some energy in later scenes as he talks about his devotion to both Maggie and the Marines.  He and Whitehurst do show some convincing romantic chemistry, though.  Williams is more successful in his engaging performance as the conflicted but loving Adam, and Shakoor delivers the play’s strongest scenes as the strong, dedicated Joe. As excellent as Shakoor is, I found myself wishing he had more scenes.

Although I had seen their production at this year’s St. Lou Fringe Festival, I hadn’t seen a full length production at Tesseract before. One impressive thing I discovered is that each Tesseract show begins with a 10 minute pre-show–a short play that’s been written to cover a theme similar to the main production. The latest pre-show is called “Spooky Action At a Distance” by Will Coleman, directed by Sean Green.  This is a compelling little drama that’s set up as a series of parallel monologues by two performers (Sean Michael and Maalik Shakoor), talking about the roles of science and faith in their lives. It’s a thoughtful dramatic exercise that’s well-performed by both actors and provides an effective introduction to topics concerning faith–whether its religious or otherwise. It’s a good lead-in to Orders, which deals with its issues in a more confrontational way.

Orders is a short play, running about 75 minutes or so, with a simple but effective set and a thought-provoking introduction in the form of the 10 minute pre-show.  It’s an impressive script from playwright Ferguson, although the unpolished, uneven performances of the some of the cast make me think about what this play could be like if cast more ideally. Tesseract’s presentation is still worthwhile, if flawed, and gives its audience a great deal to think about in terms of love, duty and belief.

Maalik Shakoor PhotoL Tesseract Theatre Company

Maalik Shakoor
PhotoL Tesseract Theatre Company

 

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