Theatre AUM's season opened this week with Paternity Leave, an entertaining World Premier original devised work by AUM faculty member and director Neil David Seibel, his second such offering at AUM, the first being Daughters of Abraham two years ago.
Ever since Joan Littlewood's 1963 landmark Oh, What a Lovely War! initiated "devised" works in a modern format to satirize current socio-political issues, devising scripts and performances has been a part of many university theatre curricula, often utilizing improvizational techniques that range from the Italian Renaissance's commedia dell'arte to Viola Spolin's theatre games, and encouraging directors, actors, playwrights, dramaturgs and designers to emphasize collaboration in reaching a finished product, whether in classroom exercises or in fully mounted productions.
In Paternity Leave, Mr. Seibel has a talented ensemble of five actors: Mark Dasinger, Jr. plays Joe, Samantha Blakely plays Malin, and Amber Baldwin, Chris Howard, and Erica Johnson each plays a variety of roles in a clever story of gender reversal where an American man [Joe] -- who is married to a Swedish wife [Malin] -- becomes pregnant, with all the standard baggage of physical discomfort, unusual bodily functions, and mood swings that traditionally impact women.
The young couple have moved to Sweden; it is there that socialized medicine makes the cost of pregnancy and childbirth far more "affordable" [read: "virtually free"] than the current average American price-tag of somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000. However, the Swedish system is not without its encumbrances of bureaucratic minutiae that Joe and Malin must handle as best they can.
There are some serious matters here regarding health care in the United States, most of which are covered in dinner-time conversations comparing American and European systems, but these pass rather quickly, and there is little time for audiences to assimilate the impact of Obamacare and the passions it arouses.
Mr. Seibel's company have chosen instead to focus most of the production's 80 minutes on the comedic elements of Joe's predicament, with only subtle references to the seriousness of health care. His "Holy shit, I'm pregnant!" sums it up nicely, and we are treated to several telling elements of familiarity: morning sickness, a sweet moment when the baby first moves inside him, his water breaking signaled by the ensemble throwing water balloons.
While they manipulate designer Michael Krek's set pieces that transform locations easily, and handle some clever props [flying a kite and holding a cut-out airplane exterior], and sing and dance in what appear to have been improvised through the rehearsal process, the energetic and committed performances occasionally blur stage focus and vocal clarity.
The production has an intended improvizational feel that combines several theatrical styles: realism, surrealism, music-hall, et al. -- And the ensemble shift gears comfortably throughout. -- Mr. Seibel, dramaturg(e) Christy Hutcheson, and the actors have put so much on the plate that it is difficult at times to digest it all. Jared Peregoy's "text message" projections often contain important commentary and some international "in jokes" about football/soccer, and certainly target current trends in communication; but they pass very quickly and split audience focus from the stage action.
Paternity Leave marks another of Theatre AUM's projects that offer excellent educational theatre exposure to its students and audiences; "devised" theatre deserves a place in contemporary theatre programs, and this project helps cement AUM's commitment to cutting-edge best practices.