Photos by Matt Hembree (C’20)
By Frances Marion Givhan
Sewanee Theatre presented John Holleman’s F##kstick on Thursday through Saturday, December 8-10 in the Tennessee Williams Center studio theatre. The cast consisted of four students, directed by theatre major Alena Kochinski (C’18). The project began last year when Kochinski and Will Johannsson (C’16) decided to collaborate on directing the show. Johannsson had an interest in the play for a while, but ended up acting as one of the leading characters for the performances.
Holleman uses 14 scenes in an episodic structure to tell the story of two men, Smythe and Jones, as they find themselves stranded on a desert island. Jones, a down on his luck pianist, tries to rescue the drunk Smythe after the latter falls off a cruise ship, but Jones’s efforts land them on the island. The two characters spend most of the play killing time, arguing, debating philosophical questions, and fighting against their current predicament.
With only a month to pull the show together, the director, actors, and designers worked long hours to achieve the vision Kochinski had in mind. The actors spent much of their energy into the sheer amount of lines they memorized and rehearsed. Johannsson and fellow lead Marion Givhan (C’18) had the difficult task of following the scattered thought processes of their characters. Both had long speeches and extensive dialogue, including a scene where Givhan narrates a baseball game between composers from the Russian Revolution and the Baroque Consort.
“I thought Marion Givhan stood out as the most engaging character,” says Page Forrest (C’17). “She did an incredible job of making the audience relate to Jones and creating a three-dimensional character we were all rooting for.” At the same time, Forrest never saw Johannsson’s character, Smythe, as likeable. “Nor do I think Johannsson intended him to be,” she says. “However, his descent into a madness added tension to the play that might have otherwise lacked it entirely.”
Casting a woman as Jones added a new dimension to a play that already addresses gender stereotypes. Typically, a man plays Jones, but Givhan’s casting meant more implications for the shifting power dynamic. “I was immediately struck by the gender contrast,” says Will Burton-Edwards (C’18). “This play highlights the dangers of machismo already, but when the ‘macho man’ was played by a guy and the sensible one was played by a woman, those roles become very clear.”
Zack Loehle (C’17) also noted the complexity of Johannsson’s portrayal of a “man committed to power even in a powerless setting.” Neither character has any ability or hope of getting off the island, but Loehle thinks, “Smythe’s assertion of power is both disturbing and interesting to watch unfold.”
Allison Bruce (C’19) and Kalynn Harrington (C’18) played characters that contributed refreshing humor to the usual banter between Johannsson and Givhan. Bruce became an audience favorite as Inga, the Danish Sailing Woman, complete with a scooter and a ship sewn into her long blonde wig (credit to hair designer Danielle Silfies (C’19)). Her innocent expressions and mannerisms made Inga such a pure character and contrasted her with the bitterness that infects much of Smythe and Jones. Bruce’s Danish accent added the final touch and made the audience laugh at each of her one-liners.
Harrington on the other hand carefully manipulated her voice to portray the Mermaid who owns the island where Jones and Smythe are stranded. Her seduction of Smythe gives the Mermaid a creepy but alluring aura, until Smythe learns that she wants to eat Jones. Harrington and Smythe played off each other beautifully, and Harrington’s voice alone manages to take the power away from Smythe in a situation where he desperately needs it.
The play analyzes particular themes throughout the script that the designers enhanced with their work. Erin Moore (C’18) used rich colors that added to the sensation of heat and claustrophobia on the island, while also “transferring power over to the actors, giving them control of the space and creating more intimacy between them and the audience.” Her simple night and day lighting design meant that moments of violence (marked with strong orange light) stood out.
Emily Riedlinger (C’18) also designed with functionality and simplicity in mind, due to the minimalistic nature of the show. “We had limitations regarding time, space, budget, and manpower,” she explains. “Thus the Minecraft-style box set was born.” The boxes played on the theme of structure so often emphasized by Smythe, as the actors could move the boxes to manipulate the environment, but also gave a sense of intimacy. “I hoped that it would give the atmosphere of a world that was somewhat made up in Smythe’s mind. Sort of pixilated and manufactured, not realistic, and a bit goofy,” says Riedlinger.
Despite the energy put into the play, issues regarding the interpretation and the script itself arose. Loehle says, “While I loved the slow immersion into the alternate reality of the desert island, that sense of a reality with alternate rules was sometimes hard to follow.” Certain jokes also had the potential to run for too long, if not performed with enough variation of movement and voice. The psychological aspect of the play caught the audience off-guard, as well. Many patrons were unprepared for the scenes of violence, Smythe’s control of Jones, and the helplessness of their situation.
The students who worked on the production managed to present a creative, fascinating show in a short time. Almost every aspect of the play received praise and compliments, from the acting to the set to the costumes. “I’m proud of how efficient and talented the women (and Will) of the Sewanee theatre are!” expresses Moore.
“I’m glad no one fell through the side of a box,” says Riedlinger.