Monday, October 5, 2020

"Understood" by Trademark Theater, an Audio Play

Two years ago, Trademark Theater premiered the new play Understood, written by resident playwright Tyler Mills, about a divided couple and a divided nation. Now, when that division has only increased, and a global pandemic has made live performance dangerous, they've pivoted this piece into an audio play, updating it for 2020. It works remarkably well in this format. Removing the visuals and the staging allows the audience to really focus on the words, and what's in between the words. And this play is all about what's being said, or not being said, or how it's being said. Understood is available now through the election, and is such an advocate for the kind of communication, listening, and connection we'll need to survive the next few months.

Married couple Chris and Julie are no longer connecting, it's like they've forgotten how to communicate, how to connect with each other. So they go looking for it elsewhere, but not in the way you expect. Due to a wrong number, Chris begins having phone conversations with an evangelical Christian with whom he disagrees on almost every issue, but whom he really listens to and opens up to. Julie visits her home town and seeks out an old friend who she knows has opposing views to hers, just so that she can practice listening and communicating. Chris and Julie are able to give these strangers their time, ears, openness, and honesty, which for some reason they no longer give to each other. This play doesn't just explore the idea of communicating with "others," but also communicating with those we are closest to in a more intimate, real, and meaningful way.

The story begins in the present and also includes flashbacks to earlier points in Julie and Chris's relationship, so we get a sense of who they were before. Julie/Chris scenes are interspersed with scenes of each of them talking with the "other." In the stage version of this play, scenes were punctuated by a complete blackout, which effectively and clearly delineated the scenes. Here it's all done with sound. A sort of swooshing sound tells us when the scene is over, and when the next one starts it's very clear which of the character pairs are speaking. There are meaningful silences, contrasted with heated discussions, sometimes the two characters speaking over each other. The sound design (by Katharine Horowitz) is so clear, effective, informative that it feels like nothing is lost in removing the visual. Adelin Phelps and Sasha Andreev reprise their roles in this two-hander, once again directed by Trademark's Artistic Director Tyler Michaels King, and the result is performances that are just as expressive, emotional, and raw in this audio format as in the original.

I only started listening to podcasts this year, and have really grown to enjoy them as a form of education, entertainment, and distraction during this pandemic (a format that's relatively safe for both creators and consumers). Theater in podcast form*, while not exactly theater as we know it, feels like a great way for companies to continue to tell stories, let voices be heard, and connect with their audience. Understood is a successful foray into this format, and the exploration of division, connection, and communication couldn't come at a better time. You can listen to it here for free, or consider paying any amount to help support these artists and their work.

*For more #TCTheater in podcast form, check out Pillsbury House Theatre's series of short new plays as part of their ongoing Great Divide series. This one is called Flip the Script, featuring new plays by local playwrights paired with a past play from this series, and is available wherever you get your podcasts. I'll be listening to and reviewing this one next.