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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
While we've come a long way in recognizing sexual assault as a broad and pervasive issue on the national stage, conversations about specific cases remain much harder to have, especially in tight-knit campus settings where such a situation can rock the very foundation of the community, and conflicts of interest may abound.
Student Body, a play by Frank Winters now in its world premiere production at The Flea, grapples with this difficulty, presenting a frank, often infuriating, and unfortunately believable conversation among a group of friends after they learn about a possible incident that's occurred within their circle. As they search for the truth and the responsible path forward, both their friendships and morals are tested.
The play showcases striking writing by Winters; fine, precise direction from Michelle Tattenbaum; and a number of strong, mature performances from members of the Bats, The Flea's resident ensemble: Tommy Bernardi, Sydney Blaxill, Alexandra Curran, Alex J. Gould, Adam Alexander Hamilton, Comfort Katchy, Alesandra Nahodil, Daniela Rivera, Mariette Strauss, and Audrey Wang.
Up top, there are some rough patches. There's something the slightest bit crude about the play's punning title (which was changed to Student Body from The School Play, the title when the work was originally commissioned). The process of getting all the characters into the room is facilitated by a contrivance that feels too much like the film Clue. Sometimes, the cast feels composed of stereotypes, like the jock, the nerd, or the party girl.
But the play goes on to prove its considerable worth. The situation it portrays (which I won't give away here) is challenging, provocative, and all-too-easily traced to recent headlines. If a plot point ever strikes you as cliched, that's usually because of how frequently you've heard something similar in the news.
Explicit moralizing isn't exactly avoided here, but the play has an artful way of playing devil's advocate to itself, and it doesn't hesitate to present viewpoints that will inevitably register as unsympathetic with the audience. Not every line of dialogue is fine-tuned for political correctness; indeed, some characters make remarks—some that even appear well-intentioned—that are cringe-worthy. The cast members do a particularly good job portraying their characters as authentic, if not always sympathetic, and they don't shy away from the ugly sides of the roles.
The Flea's intimate basement theater space provides an ideal venue for the show, allowing the audience to experience the play's impressive emotional intensity up close and personal. The decision to set the play in a theater, too, is perfectly practical and helps to remove some of the artifice of the production. Meanwhile, some details of the physical set (by Jerad Schomer for Charcoalblue) come across as overwhelmingly dramatic. A tarp splattered in red paint and some similarly colored masks nearby are evocative of blood, while a dangling electrical cord looks suspiciously like a noose, giving the setting a horror-movie vibe.
Such emotional heightening is unnecessary, though, because there's so much drama already packed into the play. Student Body does more than just deploy a contemporary issue to theatrical effect—it makes you think carefully about systematic inadequacies and asks you to question, if not necessarily change, your own attitudes. That it can leave you feeling angry, frustrated, and exhausted after only an hour speaks to its success, making it a timely contribution to an important dialogue. And uncomfortable though that dialogue may be, the play makes a compelling case that it's vital we press through to keep talking.