- The Reenactors by Juliana Francis Kelly
Juliana Francis Kelly and Tony Torn are well-known for their riveting performances in productions directed by the late Reza Abdoh, and were founding members of his company, Dar a Luz. A bricoleur, Abdoh fused popular culture, sociopolitical issues, and the life material of his company to create a theatre that at once felt intimate and vaguely exploitative. Former members have said that revealing something private in Abdoh’s presence often resulted in that disclosure onstage, as part of the show. Twenty years later, in their premiere of The Reenactors, playwright Kelly and director Torn revisited questions about reenactment that were central to their work with Abdoh. What responsibilities do actors, directors, and playwrights have to the real people whose experiences they appropriate and dramatize? Should such artists protect the human subjects of historically-based theatre from having their stories distorted in the name of art? The Reenactors explored these questions via a play-within-a-play. A middle-aged director rehearsed his self-authored drama about a 1987 suicide pact that killed four New Jersey teens, only to be challenged by his young lead actress, who intuited a puzzling secret in his script. Four scenes from The Reenactors explicitly addressed the ethics of how to restage the troubled past.
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The Reenactors began with a woman’s theatrical scream. The cry belonged to a character identified in the program as “Actress” (Blair Busbee), who appeared giddily drunk as she stumbled across the stage with “Actor” (Dylan Dawson). Although they looked like college kids, she was an exotic dancer, and the young man walking her home was a regular. As they flirted, Actor abruptly said he had researched her past and asked how she survived a high school suicide pact that claimed her boyfriend and two best friends. Actress fell silent, looking angry and betrayed. Suddenly, another man in the theatre’s front row rose to critique her performance. The “Director” (Ean Sheehy) who stood up to criticize Actress himself seemed unsure of how to represent her character. The dancer’s intelligent dialogue resisted clichés, yet Director seemed reluctant to let Actress give the role too much depth.
The next scene began with Actress and Director in his bed, the former voicing her frustration: “I have [End Page 465] no idea how to act in your fucking play!” She also resented not getting paid to act, since she worked four jobs, whereas Director’s grandmother funded him. Age and class divides made them unlikely lovers, but Actress gravitated to the mysteries of Director’s script, certain he had omitted something crucial. After much prodding, Director admitted to a one-night stand with the dancer, named Michelle, adding that they never spoke again after she shared her account of the suicide pact. Appalled, Actress accused Director of creative theft: “You are just some guy who rips off stories from girls who are way more interesting than you are!” Director’s intimate relationship with Actress positioned her as next in line to be used. Yet, Actress’s friends at her day job (Ayesha Jordan and Mieko Gavia), both fellow actresses and powerful women of color, advised her not to quit, but to instead research the real Michelle “for personal reasons and acting reasons.”
By initially presenting Director as a spoiled appropriator of others’ narratives, The Reenactors confronted avant-garde theatre’s tendency to distort, reframe, or otherwise mediate lived experiences. Whereas Abdoh encouraged surrealism in The Law of Remains (1992), which theatricalized Jeffrey Dahmer and his victims, Kelly’s protagonist sought historical accuracy when she traveled to the site of the disturbing incident. At the town’s strip club, a character identified as “Dancer” (Kaili Vernoff) greeted her warily. Tall and auburn-haired—a dead ringer for Kelly—Dancer gradually recalled a young man who had patronized the club daily after the suicides, always...