By Ben Gassman; Directed by Ran Xia
Produced by Elisabeth Ng
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.17.18
The Tank, 312 West 36th Street
by Charlotte Arnoux on 11.13.18
Kelly Bartnik and Andrea Negrete in Independent Study. Photo by Asya Gorovits.
BOTTOM LINE: A bright-eyed, culturally persecuted undergrad seeks council from her college professor in this story of “us” versus “them.”
The characters of Ben Gassman’s new play Independent Study are embroiled in a messy, polarizing political conflict. Something has happened, or maybe something is still happening, we’re not quite sure. What is clear is that the eerie world of Independent Study feels familiar yet foreign. Gassman has no interest in hand-holding. Instead, he invites us to try to keep up by latching onto the concepts that are recognizable to anyone who follows the news: genocide, bombings, refugee crises, occupation, colonialism, tribalism, war. The language of the play is straightforward and recognizable, except when it’s not.
We are welcomed into this alternate reality by GG (Andrea Negrete), a boisterous and energizing undergrad, and the Professor (Kelly Bartnik), a no-bullshit intellectual with a broken heart and an unfinished (unfinishable?) book. GG values both her straight-talking professor’s insights and her advice on how to deal with the messiness of the world she’s trying to thrive in: GG is Suman, and therefore non-Brahn, and non domcult. Her people were annihilated and she is struggling to make sense of where she belongs in this city, on this planet. Bombings are continuing in her country and she’s asking herself, and her professor, should she join the rebels? Should she change her name and try to blend in? Is she a coward?
Each scene between the two jumps time and we see GG living through her coming of age and her coming of rage. The Professor tries to reason with her, to remind her of critical thinking and the value of evidence-based arguments. “Do you want to keep reading books? Or do you want the world explained in videos and update bleeps?” the Professor asks.
Andrea Negrete is captivating in the leading role. Her fiery performance is the anchor we need in a text that can sometimes be dizzying. Bartnik is perfectly cast in the role of the Professor: she is precise in her choices and her volcanic inner life peeks through her icy exterior just enough. Alphonso Walker Jr., who plays GG’s brother, is a grounded and generous actor. Sean Hinckle, who plays the Professor’s brother, is brilliantly smarmy and charming.
Though the world of Independent Study is flooded with interwoven flashes of social media, news, and online reviews, Ran Xia’s direction is impressively and refreshingly devoid of electronics, save for a few prop phones. Instead, an ensemble of analog, 3D-actors enacts characters from television, phone, and computer screens, spewing mostly hateful commentary. This brilliant cast includes the poignant Sharlee J. Taylor, the adroit Finn Kilgore, the electric Gareth Tidball, and Yair Ben-Dor, whose power of transformation is undeniable. This chorus also floods the stage, muttering ritualized chants—sometimes coherent, sometimes muddled: "I did it because life is bullshit/I did it because I never had any friends/I did it to dominate." The “it” they refer to is never made clear.
In fact, Gassman leaves many events left untold and hidden in his challenging text. So it helps that we are also treated to the heavy dose of theater magic that we’ve come to expect from Xia’s direction: she bring us in an out of the distracting, overwhelming landscape of beeps, tweets, and feeds with the whimsical use of handheld lights and clever hidden contraptions built into the An-lin Dauber's set. If you're ok with some dense writing and not always knowing exactly what's going on, there are elements of Independent Study that are worth checking out.
(Independent Study plays at The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, through November 17, 2018. The running time is 80 minutes without intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $25 and are available at thetanknyc.org.)
Independent Study is by Ben Gassman. Directed by Ran Xia. Production Design by An-Lin Dauber. Lighting Design by Elizabeth M. Stewart. Stage Manager is Gabrielle Giacomo.
The cast is Andrea Negrete, Kelly Bartnik, Sharlee J. Taylor, Finn Kilgore, Sean Hinckle, Alphonso Walker Jr., Yair Ben-Dor, and Gareth Tidball.