It’s safe to say that politics are a particularly dicey subject in America right now, which makes Tom Basden’s Party, about a group of idealistic young college students forming their own political party, an especially interesting choice in the Station Theatre’s summer 2017 lineup of shows.
While chatting with Smile Politely about the show for our preview, director Tom Mitchell described the play as “an affectionate depiction of youthful political earnestness” and said that he had chosen the show in large part as a reaction to his feelings following November’s election results. The idea behind the choice is to offer a light, comic show as an antidote to the huge amounts of stress and angst that many Americans (and people around the world) have been experiencing whenever they think about “politics” over the last months.
I attended Thursday night’s opening performance of Party with an audience so large that a few extra seats had to be crammed into the Station’s already tight performance space to accommodate it, so it seems safe to say that C-U audiences are open to an antidote. I had personally spent much of the day being stressed about the Paris Accord, America’s international reputation, and, of course, “covfefe”, so as I arrived at the theater I felt very ready to relax and forget about the more serious side of politics for a while.
Unfortunately, Party was first produced in 2009, and I felt like it ultimately just doesn’t play the same way in 2017 that it might have played then. Basden’s idealistic youths certainly did feel familiar to me from my own days of being politically active in college (RIP, “Students for Howard Dean”). The play’s central joke, however, is that the main characters don’t really know anything about the political issues they’re debating and are more concerned with branding than with any substantive exploration of principles or ideas.
For me, this hits a little too close to home in regards to what I’m seeing right now not just from the “millennials” age group that the play primarily pokes fun at, but pretty much everywhere. The plot winds towards a fairly predictable but entertaining conclusion and has plenty of amusing moments along the way, but throughout I found it hard to forget about the similar behaviors in the real world that have taken us to some pretty scary places lately.
Although if you are indeed able to leave your political angst at the door, this is a well-acted production with a strong cast. Janjay Knowlden plays Duncan, the newcomer to the group, who provides a fresh perspective on the fledgling party’s plans while also waiting with increasing impatience for the promised lemon drizzle cake that lured him to the meeting in the first place. Coy Benning and Tafadzwa Diener play off each other well as the arrogant Jared, who has decided he’s the party’s leader without any sort of vote (I think anyone who has ever been part of a political group will find Jared’s well-meaning condescension to be all too familiar), and Mel, who is clearly the most well-informed and most earnest member of the group but who fruitlessly struggles to control the flow of the group’s brainstorming sessions. Lily Sethi-Newton as Phoebe and Nic Morse as Jones often find themselves somewhere in the middle of Jared and Mel’s clashes, though their own strong opinions also influence events.
The play opens with the group meeting in Jared’s mother’s garden shed and trying to reach consensus on whether the party will be “for” or “against” China as they try to settle on their party platform. The conversation quickly veers off course once “Muslims” appears on the list of countries. Trying to get back on track by going to the next actual country on the list, the group realizes that none of them know enough about Armenia to make a ruling on it either way, and the group pursues one tangent after another from there on out, including lengthy discussions of what their party should be called and what its official color should be. (All the good ones appear to already be taken.) At just over an hour, the play maintains a fairly light tone throughout and never gets much deeper than “aren’t these people ridiculous?”
Jaclyn Zimmerman’s set design works well for Party and efficiently conveys the feeling of a cluttered garden shed with various bulky objects suspended in the strings of draped lights that frame the stage. The “door” to the shed has windows in it that allow characters to continue to be part of proceedings even when a fit of pique has caused them to storm outside, which is used to comic effect on several occasions. The audience is seated on three sides of the stage and there is no clear “front” of the performance area, which extends almost to the edge of the seating area. This means that wherever you sit you’ll have characters speaking with their backs to you at one point or another and there will likely be moments of action you can’t quite see, especially if you’re not seated in the front row. However, this creates a somewhat immersive feel and I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on seeing anything crucial even from my seat in the back.
The play was supplemented on the night I attended with a selection of comic songs performed beforehand by the show’s assistant director, Sullivan Peterson-Quinn (who also appears in a small role in the play). The highlight of this part of the evening for me was Peterson-Quinn’s spirited rendition of The Decemberists’ eight-minute-long “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, which was especially enjoyable as it was clear that many audience members were experiencing the song’s sinister twists and turns for the first time. Since the play itself is on the short side, I appreciated that the effort was made to provide a little extra entertainment for the ticket price.
While there’s not a lot of depth to Party, its short length meant that it didn’t overstay its welcome, and the script includes a lot of genuinely funny lines and moments. For me, this was a show that I think I might have enjoyed a lot more if I had seen it at a different time in my life, as it just didn’t mesh well with my current dark mood about all things political. Those who are more able to look at the lighter side of our current situation, however, may be able to better appreciate the hard work of this production’s talented cast and creative team.
Party continues its run at the Station Theatre at 8 PM Wednesday-Sunday June 7th-11th and Wednesday-Saturday June 14th-17th. Tickets are $15 on Fridays/Saturdays and $10 all other nights. Tickets can be reserved online here or by calling 217-384-4000.
All photographs by Scott Wells.