Review: "Democracy Sucks" and "Testament" at East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual Festival

East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual

Presented by 59E59 Theaters via https://59e59.org/

July 15-25, 2021

Cori Hundt, Jessica Giannone, Desireé Rodriguez, Doron JéPaul Mitchell, & Biko Eisen-Martin in Testament. Photo credit: Jessica Bennett
The East to Edinburgh festival comes to 59E59 Theaters this summer in virtual form, as East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual. The lineup of nine shows has been curated by 59E59 Associate Curator Jessica Hart to celebrate the diversity of the Edinburgh Fringe, even if this year's productions won't be physically performed there. The festival's limited run extends from July 15 through July 25, with one $20 festival pass ($18 for 59E59 Members) giving access to all nine shows for on-demand streaming through the 59E59 website.

Yesterday, we discussed #Charlottesville and Black Women Dating White Men, a pair of plays constructed verbatim from interviews. Today, in our second of two pieces on the festival, we look at two plays that take a more traditional form, Democracy Sucks and Testament. Although very different in tone, both ask audiences to (re)consider familiar texts and ideas from unfamiliar angles.

Democracy Sucks

Written by Monica Bauer

Directed by John D. FitzGibbon

Produced by Good Works Productions, John Fico, and John D. FitzGibbon

John Fico in Democracy Sucks. Image credit John Fico 
The one-act play Democracy Sucks finds a professor (John Fico) at the fictional Upper Michigan State livestreaming the final class of his spring 2020 section of Political Philosophy 101. This is the same lecture, Professor B tells us, that he has been giving all semester, and that he will continue to give until he is sure that his students have absorbed what they need to know in what he calls the "insane situation" in which the country finds itself. One might guess at the topic of this lecture based on the title of the play, and our protagonist delivers it with a lightly soiled t-shirt and copious amounts of white wine—although his real hangover is from the 2016 election. Some want him fired, though he is tenured; student evaluations are coming up; and some of the politics of his situation are extremely personal.

Fico, the sole performer, holds the screen with personable acerbity, when he is not dancing his intro to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" or embodying Plato and Soc(k)rates with hand puppets and voices that would fit right in on Sesame Street. Enhancing his performance, Fico also plays very effectively with proximity to the camera. The play adroitly mixes its comedy and its themes, as with when Profesor B's funny potshots at his dean also illustrate how Plato's solution to the problems of democracy could never work. Although the most direct links from these classical philosophers are to the 45th President, the questions that production raises remain equally relevant to thinking about the ongoing effort to game the democratic system in the United States in order to permanently entrench minority rule. Democracy Sucks also leaves open the complicated question of whether its ending upholds its protagonist's thesis. We are fairly confident that Professor B would say that you should see the show for yourself in order to make an informed decision.

Testament

Written by Tristan Bernays

Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson

Produced by Via Brooklyn Theatre Co.

Cori Hundt, Jessica Giannone, Desireé Rodriguez, Doron JéPaul Mitchell, & Biko Eisen-Martin in Testament. Photo credit: Jessica Bennett
Testament, from actor and writer Tristan Bernays, begins with an a capella rendition of the American traditional song "Oh Death," a lament on loss, loneliness, and mortality. Its themes resonate with the triad of stories to follow, but the way that further blues and gospel songs act almost like a Greek chorus between these stories—each begun by a singer (Desireé Rodriguez) with no spoken lines, who is joined by whichever character(s) last held forth—also points to how Testament reimagines inherited narratives and collapses the space between the old and the new.

The play is essentially structured as two monologues by male characters, here both cast as Black men, separated by a duologue by a pair of sisters, cast as white, with the aforementioned sung portions acting as a complement to and division between the personal narratives that they recount. These characters might seem familiar—a man named Isaac (Doron JéPaul Mitchell) whose father Abraham starts hearing directly from God; a pair of sisters (Jessica Giannone and Cori Hundt) who lose their mother fleeing their city, after which their father becomes an abusive drunkard; a thief (Biko Eisen-Martin) awaiting his sentence of execution alongside a much more famous (political) prisoner—but their stories have been given an entirely fresh perspective, one that highlights their contemporary resonances, which are further inflected by the casting. This is particularly true regarding mass incarceration and the death penalty in the case of the thief, who also raises what some might consider good questions regarding his well-known cellmate. Testament invests these Biblical transplants to the modern day with rich psychology and contextual detail made all the more affecting by the stripping out, in the characters' accounts, of the supernatural (it is, however, left to the viewer how, after these clear-eyed rehearsals of trauma, to read the closing gospel song).

This new production of the play, which was first staged in 2017, presents a performance filmed in a space that evokes a support group in a church. A preponderance of medium and medium long shots keep the focus on the impressive performances. Rodriguez comes across as the supportive center of the group, despite not speaking a word; while Mitchell fully inhabits the nuanced emotional topography of Isaac's betrayal; and, as Mary and Jane, Giannone and Hundt's rapid alternating delivery and cheerful talk of family holidays contrasts potently with the residual trauma clear beneath a chipper Southern surface. The excellent Eisen-Martin, meanwhile, builds towards a furiously impassioned climax for both his character and the show. Testament's tales of struggle would be absorbing even without their Judeo-Christian intertextuality, but in that connection, they are also a testament to how a culture's stories remain living things, endlessly molded by new tellers to say new thing to new audiences in new times.    

John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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