April Singer, Scott Goodman, & Chris Petty in Ben Unwin’s @con. Photo by Shaun Kinney.
By Ben Unwin
Directed by Martin French
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Ben Unwin’s writing has been characterized by a taste for the outrageous, and for the first half of his new play, he seems to have settled into relatively realistic and grounded territory: the conflict among a group of hackers at a convention. Yet before the play has finished…trust me, Unwin has brought the Grand Guignol whackadoddle in sufficient supply.
He has chosen for his setting a sub-culture that provides vast potential for comedy and eccentric characters, as well as the context for surrealism and horror, without entirely sacrificing the integrity of his story. If his ultimate goal as a writer is to marry solid narrative structure with idiosyncratic scenarios, @con might be counted as his greatest success.
The plot follows Gaz (April Singer) and Vlad (Megan Adair), two female “black hat” hackers who are working to infiltrate the convention’s corporation sponsor. Gaz’ former lover, Tre (Neill Brewer) is in charge of security at the con, and the play opens with an interrogation scene that is directly echoed in a flashback later on. There is a lot of rich history among these three characters that gives the play resonance. The remaining three eccentrics in the cast are the manic Conquistacode (Ryan Watson), who tries to sell black market tech to Gaz, and a pair of “trolls” that evoke comedic teams from Laurel and Hardy to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Nominy (Chris Petty), and Slimer (Scott Goodman).
Unwin beautifully captures the geek-tech nomenclature of this world, and doesn’t shy away from the casual vulgarity and pervasive misogyny that weighs it down. Nominy and Slimer are unrepentantly abusive with their language, particularly towards women, but Petty and Goodman are such good-natured comic actors that they manage to make the ugliness palatable without diluting the point Unwin is making about a culture of social isolation that makes the expression of such vicious sexism acceptable.
The playwright has enough confidence to not feel required to stop for an explanation of the acronyms and inside jokes that pepper the dialogue. He refuses to patronize. If you don’t know the meaning of terms such as DEOS, 4chan, or doxxing, you will be able to comprehend how they function within the story well enough, and most of us have enough experience with other, similar sub-cultures to identify with the dynamic.
For all his discipline in accurately delineating that culture, Unwin is still prone to excess enough that the latter half of @con feels a little overstuffed and overreaching. The topic of gender identity and transsexual transition is awkwardly injected, albeit with a fair degree of insight and compassion, perhaps as a corrective balance to the scabrous misogyny. The writing never quite reconciles the merge of the two strains, but the fact that Unwin seems so full of ideas and is willing to explore them so fully is what makes his work fascinating. It is interesting to note that LGBTQIA issues are a reoccurring concern in Unwin’s work, but I would love to have seen him focus and develop his unique story concept with greater economy. The play loses shape a little in the middle, and the resolution works itself out satisfactorily, but with a few too many beats.
April Singer pretty much owns the play; no small thing with a cast this strong and committed. She and Neill Brewer command their scenes with great authority, making the bitterness and recrimination in their dialogue crackle. Megan Adair gets off to a slow start, but quickly rises to that same level; meeting the challenge of an overlong act two monologue with confidence and invention. Ryan Watson is cast as the kind of quirky, borderline-insane characterization that has made his reputation in this community, and he does not disappoint, while Scott Goodman and Chris Petty, as noted above, find the warmth and laughs among the nastiness.
Director Martin French makes the whole thing play in a surprisingly naturalistic fashion given the fluid, proto-science fiction direction it is headed, and there were a few lighting snafus and slightly awkward set changes, but they mostly reflect the challenges of rehearsing six full length plays in the time frame normally allotted for one. Whatever nits might be picked, @con is a bold beginning for the First Annual Derby City Playwrights New Play Festival, which is an ambitious undertaking meant to shine a spotlight on six local writers. Plays by Eli Keel & Tyler Kurth, Rachel White, David Clark, Taj Whitesell, and DCP founder Brian Walker all make their world premieres this weekend. It is to be welcomed.
July 7 @ 7:30pm
July 15 @ 7:30pm
July 24 @ 5:30pm
Part of the First Annual Derby City Playwrights New Play Festival
Advanced Tickets: $18 / At the door: $20
Derby City Playwrights
The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.