Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Norman Yeung’s play “Theory,” now at the Tarragon’s Extra-Space, is relevant for our times, asking questions about the limits of both free speech and political correctness, and how these “theories” affect human lives and historical context. Skillfully and tautly directed by Esther Jun, the play centers around Isabelle, a young white professor of film theory, who encourages her diverse students to express themselves freely (as adults), including posting anonymously on a elf-moderated discussion board that – all too soon – leads to comments that veer toward racism and sexism, leading some students to feeling unsafe.
Isabelle staunchly defends their right to speak, even when the comments impinge on herself and her wife, Lee, a tenured professor at another university who is Black. As a subplot, the couple is hoping to have a child together, so the nature of their relationship as well as tenure for Isabelle become factors in the story.
Sascha Cole gives Isabelle an intensity and brave (if naïve) innocence, but it is Audrey Dwyer as Lee who, for me, gives the play its emotional heart. Dwyer sees the danger of the posts before Isabelle does, and is clearly hurt and offended, while still trying to be loving. As one (or more?) of the students becomes a troll and sabotages both Isabelle herself and the couple’s relationship, Isabelle begins to break down emotionally. What begins as an exciting play of ideas – with many relevant comments about cinema and about the role of the arts in re-envisioning society and letting us see in new ways — turns into a kind of psychological thriller which is somewhat unresolved even at the end of the play.
The large film class is represented by four actors, who have engaging personalities and stories: Bilai Baig (Davinder), Asha James (Safina), Kyle Orzech (Richard), and Anthony Perpuse (Jorge). Unfortunately, their stories and the interplay between their characters are not fully explored; their interaction gets off to a good start but then gets sidetracked by the plot. All these actors are excellent in their respective roles. Fabrizio Filippo gives a good performance as the dean who tries to de-escalate the situation.
Joe Pagman’s well-designed set is monochromatic, in blacks, whites, and grays – like most of the film clips from Isabelle’s class that we see during the production, projected on walls and cabinets that become screens. (The films include Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, Baise-moi, and others.) We also are bombarded by posts on the “board,” showing what Isabelle and her students are seeing. Cameron Davis, production designer, has done an excellent job of putting these videos together. His visuals, combined with John Gzowski’s sound design, locate this play clearly in the 21st century. Michelle Bohn’s costumes help create the characters’ identities, and also show the passage of time (early fall to winter).
One of the important questions the play raises is the question of “safe’ and “unsafe” spaces in art and in life. As Jorge tells Safina, going to university means opening oneself up to new and potentially unsafe ideas, and much of art – from Greek tragedies like Antigone to modern films like Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman: “ (which also references D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) are meant to provoke us and disturb our preconceived notions. On the other hand, we also need to respect and care for each other, and not demonize people and groups. There are no easy answers, and theory must go hand in hand with life experience. The Tarragon deserves much credit for exploring these ideas which affect all of us. Note that there is some content that may disturb some audience members (but this is what the play is, at least in part, about).
Theory is at Tarragon Extraspace through November 25.