by Matthew Falduto
Photo by Von Presley Studios
Cedar Rapids – Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Grandon Studio seems to exist so the theatre has a place to push boundaries and tackle work that is more edgy, work that challenges its audiences, and work that isn’t always the crowd pleasing fare that one expects upstairs in the magnificent auditorium. In that sense, The Flick, by Annie Baker, fits in perfectly.
The story is about three movie theater workers and their relationships with each other. Sam (Nathan Shepard) is a 35 year old baseball cap wearing white guy who is afraid he’ll be stuck in this dead end job forever. Rose (Claire Winkleback) is a 20-something woman with the green hair who seems completely adrift in life. Avery (Peter “Jubril” Awe) is a incredibly smart black guy, a college student with an encyclopedic knowledge of movies. Of course, Sam likes Rose who like Avery, who gets to the point where he wishes these white people would just leave him the hell alone. There’s a lot of subtext going on in this play, as issues of class (Sam and Rose are both part of the lower class while Avery’s dad is a college professor) and race boil under the surface. (In fact, at times one wishes the subtext would drop the ‘sub’ and become more obvious, but more on that later.) Director Emma Drtina and her talented actors do an excellent job of portraying this subtext and the tension it creates.
All three main actors offer smart, nuanced performances. Shepard reveals so much from beneath his baseball cap with just a glance or a shrug. Winkleback’s Rose is a bit of a whirlwind and she simultaneously conveys both her character’s power and vulnerability effortlessly. However, the character I was most drawn to was Awe’s Avery. Awe disappears into the role, making very specific choices with his body and voice to create Avery. It’s not easy to maintain that for three hours, but Awe pulls it off beautifully.
All three of these actors have their moments to shine. For example, Shepard’s portrayal of Sam’s heartfelt declaration of love is painful to behold. As a youth theatre director, I often speak to my young actors about being brave enough to be vulnerable on stage. Shepard’s moment is a perfect example of an actor laying himself bare. It’s brave and lovely and uncomfortable to watch, just as those moments should be. There’s also a powerful confrontation near the end of the second act between Avery and Sam. Awe finally allows Avery to be unleashed, showing a strength that we always felt might be hiding beneath the surface. Smart actors know how to build to these moments and Awe’s work throughout the play pays off here.
The creation of the movie theater is nicely done, with real move theater seats slightly raked, offering different levels for the director work with. The playing area is on one side of the Grandon, and the audience sits where the movie screen would be. This is a contrast to most Grandon shows, as the audience usually sits on three sides of the playing area. I appreciated the change. One small quibble was the fact that the lighting booth for the play doubled as the projection booth for the show. Oftentimes there was a character in what was supposed to be the projection booth, but sitting right next to them in plain view was the light board operator. This was distracting.
There is one central issue that will confound some theatregoers. The truth is, this play has a bit of tumultuous history. When it was first produced off Broadway, the artistic director took the unusual step of sending a letter to subscribers explaining why they chose to present the show. This was in response to the fact that many regular patrons of the show left at intermission expressing their dismay to the ushers as they did so. On opening night of TCR’s production, I noticed that at least the two people sitting directly in front of me left during intermission. So what is it that so offends people about the show? It’s the long stretches of silence, where nothing more happens beyond sweeping popcorn into a dustpan. This happens multiple times during the course of the first act. In general, the pace of the show feels unusually slow to modern audiences who have been conditioned to expect action and excitement from their entertainment. However, that’s intentional. There’s a realism to this show that one doesn’t find in most theatre productions. We are absolutely transported to the mundane lives of these theater workers as they go about their repetitive and boring jobs. I personally am very torn about this decision by the playwright and the director to bring this realism to the audience. On the hand, I applaud the bravery of pushing boundaries and challenging audiences. On the other hand, there were times when I was desperately wishing for something more interesting to happen.
I would encourage you to check out The Flick and make up your own mind about its realism. Even if you find the pace glacial, know that there will be moments of powerful acting from three talented performers.