Created By: Jennifer Thalman Kepler, Shannon Woolley Allison, Trina Fischer, Asly Toro, Kathi E.B. Ellis, and Holly Stone, based on work with their Guatemalan colleagues and other Faith Stories Project participants, including participants from LFL, Guatemala, First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, and Fairfax Presbyterian Church.
Directed by Jennifer Thalman Kepler
Review by Eli Keel
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Eli Keel. All rights reserved.
It is impossible to separate Looking for Lilith’s productions from their artistic mission. It’s also probably pointless. Their unabashedly social justice forward and feminist works generally eschew standard plot formulas to put education and issues front and center.
I’m a big old liberal, and a self-proclaimed feminist myself, so Lilith finds in me a forgiving audience member, but their latest workshop production requires no forgiveness, and promises an excellent full length production sometime in the future.
Presented as part of the Slant Culture Theatre Festival, Uncaged Desenjauladas works well despite a seeming unwieldy premise and number of dramatic pitfalls that would have sunk a less skilled company. Lilith is equally adept at avoiding the intersectional and semiotic problems that manage to undermine so many social justice oriented dramas.
Uncaged is a constructed work about The Faith Stories Project, an ongoing series of workshops that Lilith has led in Guatemala over the last decade. These workshops taught poor and marginalized women in Guatemala to use theatre to share their stories, and help make their voices heard in their communities. Uncaged shows the events that led to this program, and then recreates some of these workshops and some of the scenes created by the particpants.
As a story by a theatre company about workshops led by that theatre company, this piece could have easily come across as self-congratulatory. You might remember the satirical Onion headline “6- Day Trip to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Pic,” which so neatly skewered that sort of activism.
Lilith avoids seeming smug by keeping the work focused on the Guatemalan women and their stories. While the Lilith cast members show up frequently in the narrative, their personal growth isn’t the driving force of the action.
The three person cast features excellent performances from Lilith mainstays Shannon Wooley Allison and Trina Fischer, and is also bolstered by a strong showing from new (or at least new to me) performer Asly Toro. Each person performed a multitude of roles including Guatamalan women and Lilith members traveling to South America, though Woolley Allison spent the lion’s share of her time as our narrator and guide.
The company doesn’t spend too much time trying to define which person is which character at which point. Although a few names may have gotten tossed about, for the most part there is a simple binary at work, an actor is either playing a Lilith company member or a Guatemalan women. Which company member or which woman isn’t narratively important, as the action plays out in a series of loosely connected vignettes.
This could have tripped up the action with troubling semiotics, suggesting that the women Lilith has worked with are somehow interchangeable, or monolithic.
Lilith solves this problem by heavily featuring video of their workshop participants. Shot on location in Guatemalan and in the United states, the action frequently features the women themselves. They fill in buses and churches and immigration offices, and occasional offer snatches of their stories in their own words. The video shows strong proud, individual, women.
Though dramatically and semiotically effective, the projection of the video is the only aspect of Uncaged that falls short. There simply isn’t enough room in Walden Theatre’s Alt Space to keep the actors lit, and have a clear and vibrant projection. The audience could see what was on the screen, but the images were washed out. It’s a shame, because what the audience could see was obviously skillfully shot and edited.
With these scenes within scenes, and scenes within scenes being mirrored by the scenes on-screen, (not to mention multiple characters played by each actor) it would have been easy for the play to become lost in its own navel. A less skilled company might have left the audience confused or bored. Thankfully, we are in steady hands. A few simple devices and narrative threads keep the train thoroughly on track.
A theatre festival like Slant is a great place to ask what art is for, or even if art has some concrete purpose. While Uncaged may not have the showiest acting of the festival, the biggest name writers, or the most giggle inducing performance art, it has the most concrete and most assured answer to the big question: Art’s purpose is to build bridges of understanding between people, so we can all live safer, happier, more fulfilling lives.
Saturday, November 15 – 3 pm
Thursday, November 20 – 7:30 pm
Sunday, November 23 – 2:30 pm
Part of the Slant Culture Theatre Festival
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204