If you’ve ever participated in a writing class or workshop, you’ve likely been told to “write what you know.” It’s pretty standard advice for beginner artists, but may not yield much material if you’ve a limited supply of life experiences. Not to mention, telling someone else’s harrowing tale appeals to the people-watcher in all of us and is usually far more interesting to explore—far more interesting, yet potentially more dangerous, according to Jeff Talbott. Olney Theatre takes on the playwright’s daring work, The Submission, which delves into the often precarious relationship between an artist and his finished public work.
The Olney Theatre has proven itself more than capable of producing a bold, entertaining and thought-provoking work.
The premise of The Submission is gutsy. A struggling writer finally pens an epic stage play about a poor Black family living in the ghetto. Said play wins a ton of accolades and even gets accepted for a full production by the career-launching Humana Festival. Only problem is the playwright is middle-class, White and gay with no real connection or perhaps authority to write about the African-American plight. But the playwright has a solution; submit the script under an “ethnic” pseudonym and hire a Black actor to pose as its author. As one would surmise, calamity ensues as does a taut examination of race, sexual orientation, and artistic license.
While The Submission is not without a few missteps, its greatest strength is that there are no obvious heroes or villains, making it a relatable, true to life story that will prompt much debate long after curtain call. As Danny, the voyeuristic playwright in crisis, Frank DeJulio is energetic and cheeky, his bubbly nature making him somehow likeable during even his most cringe worthy and politically incorrect quips. He has great emotional range and proves as such particularly when Danny is forced to face the consequences of his actions. As Emilie, the African-American actress Danny hires to pose as playwright, “Shaleeha G’ntamobi,” Kelle Knighten Hough is a tough presence in a petite frame. She is confident and exacting, often cutting stern glances at her cohorts – looks that anyone with a strict mother would recognize. Craig Dolezel is solid as Trevor, the foursome’s resident nice guy caught in the middle of an awkward situation. Dolezel has an approachable quality about him which balances nicely against the play’s mostly demonstrative characters. And as Pete, Danny’s highbrow boyfriend, Ari Butler is surprisingly funny and charismatic. Butler’s lighthearted delivery of Pete’s opinionated dialogue offers a much needed reprieve from the story’s often unrelenting tug of war.
Together the cast mostly plays well against each another. While the romantic relationship between Hough and Dolezel lacked chemistry, I totally bought the “opposites attract” connection between DeJulio and Butler. Most importantly, DeJulio and Hough fare perfectly as colleagues turned “frenemies.” Their must-see climactic confrontation was so believable I wanted to jump out of my seat to intervene.
Director David Elliot wisely opts to mount The Submission at Olney’s, Mulitz-Gudelsky Lab, a 150 seat black box theatre. The smaller venue suits the story’s personal and sensitive nature which will likely hit close to home. The actors move fluidly about the stage and transition easily between scenes. Sound designer Max Krembs adds a cool rock guitar riffing soundtrack, which abruptly ends at the start of each new scene. It’s a nice, upbeat effect. Likewise scenic and costume designer Bill Clarke creates an open and multifunctional space in which large walls placed at each end of the stage are used to signal changes in time and location. Beds roll onto the stage to serve as hotel rooms. The walls themselves, decorated in warm hues and art deco style blocking, contain panels which rotate between scenes. For example, the same panel used to decorate Danny and Pete’s apartment with a Warhol painting later flips to reveal a café awning. The result is a very creative yet economical use of a limited space. Overall Elliot orchestrates a technically smooth and inventive production.
However, the problem with The Submission seems to rest in Talbott’s script. Sure, we’re all walking, talking human contradictions, but Danny and Emilie’s relentless social faux pas make it hard to believe they are especially enlightened characters. Emilie’s stereotypical beliefs about homosexuals negate an otherwise poised and intelligent demeanor. More appallingly, Danny’s often naïve and cavalier statements about race make it difficult to believe he is capable of writing a masterpiece about the Black experience. Still the point/counterpoint dialogue that comprises most of the play is effective and realistic.
The dialogue reads like the edgy private conversations we have amongst close friends and posits a few poignant questions. How do we really perceive people of other races, cultures and sexual orientations? What would it take to make someone reveal his inner prejudices? Once a work of art is presented to the world, who owns it? The audience? The artist? I don’t think The Submission offers any concrete answers to those questions and rightfully so. It’s up to us to pick up where Talbott left off. And as Danny avows in his own controversial play, “it’s important to know what you’re capable of.” I’m still figuring that one out myself, but of this I am certain, The Olney Theatre has proven itself more than capable of producing a bold, entertaining and thought-provoking work.
Running Time: 2 Hours – No Intermission.
Advisory: Adult Subject Matter and Language (Profanity)
The Submission plays at the Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832, thru June 9, 2013. For tickets click here.