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Drury University Theatre Season Opens In A Dystopian World with "Arlington"

(Logo design courtesy Drury University Theatre)

For their first production of the 2019-2020 academic year, Drury University Theatre presents "Arlington", subtitled "A Love Story," by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Haddy Kreie, Assistant Professor of Theatre at Drury, directs this production, running Wed-Sat Oct. 2-5 in Sunderland Studio Theatre in Drury's O'Bannon Hall; evening performances are at 7:30pm, with a 2:00pm matinee on Saturday Oct. 5. Kreie came on KSMU’s “Arts News” to talk about the play with two of her student actors, Keandra Jennings and Katie Powell.

“Arlington” is a story of love and oppression set in a “dystopian” world of entrapment, isolation and constant, 24-hour surveillance. According to Kreie, “One of the major themes that comes up in the play is the idea of progress—sort of ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’ and how that gets out of hand with everyone trying to reach for more and more and more, just for the sake of ‘progress.’ The powers that be have sort of decided to take away their choice.” (The play doesn’t suggest the Kardashians will be responsible for whatever ‘dystopian’ future we will endure—Haddy Kreie was simply making a point here!) “But ultimately,” she went on, “I think it’s a love story. It’s about companionship, and whether or not companionship can save us from the oppression of trying to be everything that society tries to force us to be.”

The play is set in a waiting room of “no fixed time or place.” We’ve all felt somewhat like Isla (pronounced “EYE-la”), the young woman who finds herself trapped in this waiting room, not even knowing exactly what she’s waiting for, looking for what seems like an eternity for one’s number to come up on a display screen. Only thing is, she really is trapped—and under constant surveillance by a young man, known as ‘The Usual Man,’ in an adjacent control room. “She’s been there most of her life, yes,” said Drury student actor Keandra Jennings, who plays Isla. “She assumes that there’s a life being built outside, beyond those walls, for her. But she doesn’t really know. So, she’s just hopeful.”

Isla’s hope emerges in a series of imaginative stories she invents about what she wishes the outside world turns out to be—stories that The Usual Man in the control room listens to attentively.  And he, disconnected from her as he is, represents Isla’s only real relationship with another person. “He assists (Isla’s) dreams, and they kind of work together to bring them to life,” Jennings said.

Katie Powell plays a character called “The Supervisor.” “Essentially, she just oversees everything that’s going on. She sees the relationship developing between the young man and Isla. But she actually delights in the torture of the people that are living in the Towers. It’s really interesting, because she’s merely a voice character, she never comes on stage. So it’s really interesting to see how that can relate back to the storyline.”

Another interesting aspect of Haddy Kreie’s production is that it’s double-cast—but not in the sense that one actor plays a role one night and another actor takes over at the next performance.  There are two people playing Isla and two playing the young man… but they are onstage at the same time, on opposite sides of the room! Keandra Jennings said this technique “mimics the idea of being trapped in this world. So the audience only gets to see portions of it, and may not see what’s happening in the ‘other room.’ It’ll be an experience!”

I’ll be honest: I found this confusing until director Haddy Kreie, near the end of our interview, explained it in more detail. I was still under the impression that she meant “double-cast” in the more conventional sense. “They all do all the shows, but we split the dialogue. So they’re both performing on stage simultaneously. You’ll just be looking in one direction or another.” That’s because they’ve arranged the stage with the 60 audience seats situated in the middle of two separate stages. 

In what’s described as a long central section, the audience will see Isla “dance the last 20 minutes of her life,” said Jennings, referring to a stage direction in the script. “We’ve actually divided that up so there are several dancers who work together to tell that story, of what it’s like to be isolated, and the feeling of the room pressing in on you. (Isla) does part of the dancing, and we’ve introduced a couple of other dancers who would be similarly placed like Isla in other rooms. So we kind of get the impression that this is happening to multiple people.”

Asked if performing this script is unsettling, Keandra Jennings acknowledged that “it’s very emotional for sure. We talked about it two rehearsals ago. It’s kind of something you have to de-compress afterwards—it is heavy material. But I talk to my ‘other Isla,’ ‘Isla number two.’ She’s amazing. We worked together to build the character, and after long rehearsals we could talk about what’s happened, pull ourselves out, and have to remind ourselves that, ‘Hey, we’re not really Isla! We’re college students doing the college grind!’  It is heavy, but I very much like to become Isla and get very fully into the moment. And I find myself crying—as the character, but also as me, because it is relatable material.” Haddy Kreie told Jennings she likes “this idea that you guys are in it together, right? Like, you’re not alone doing this. Just like Isla’s not really alone doing this, but she doesn’t have access to the other Islas.” Added Jennings, “I know the boys do it as well… and there are little rivalries!”

Tickets are $14 adults, $7 for senior citizens and non-Drury students, and $3 for Drury faculty, staff and students. Call the box office at 873-7255 Monday through Friday 1:00 to 5:00pm, and an hour before curtain on show days.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.