It’s probably true that all art is in some way derivative. And over the past year, I’ve found that to be a good thing. After months of watching plays and performances live streamed to my laptop, I’ve been nothing but impressed by the ways theater artists are able to find new and engaging ways to tell the stories that are so familiar to us.
That’s true of “Fall the House,” presented at UTNT, the University of Texas New Theatre festival. Written by Brooklyn-born playwright, Nicholas Kaidoo, and directed by Braxton Rae, “Fall The House” is the latest new work from UT Theater & Dance department’s presented virtually.
As far as the college’s recent programming of Zoom-based performances and webcam live streams goes, “Fall the House” is welcomingly evocative of live, pre-pandemic theater. The show, which streams on demand through April 24, is in fact a live-stream of an in-person, outdoor semi-staged script reading, albeit, one performed by mask-wearing actors. And if there ever were a production to begin the process of slowly ushering audiences back into the traditional live-theater experience, “Fall The House” is it. Here’s a show that takes its beats from one of the oldest examples of live performance.
Drawing inspiration and its story’s rough outline from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon — the first in the playwright’s Oresteia trilogy — Kaidoo’s script similarly chronicles a headstrong, feared authority figure/war-hero’s homecoming from a years-long conflict, where he faces the consequences of his violent actions (namely the death and here implied sacrifice of his daughter). Like in the Oresteia trilogy, “Fall The House” offers a tragic commentary on violence as a seemingly unstoppable, cyclically destructive force.
Kaidoo’s retelling is modernized, set in early 2000’s Brooklyn housing project torn up by gang wars. And Kaidoo leans into this contemporary setting with all his might. Greek chorus members are replaced with lively city residents; a doom-predicting soothsayer here takes the form of a blind, goat-herding neighborhood layabout; and King Agamemnon is now Ghost, the hardened gang leader to whom these streets belong.
I’ll admit to feeling some apprehension about the possibility that the show’s drastic shift in setting — from ancient Argos to the streets of contemporary Brooklyn — was simply a result of what could be labeled the “Shakespeare-but-make-it-modern” syndrome, i.e. a production of “Julius Caesar” set in 1980’s Wall Street for the sole purpose of making heavy-handed societal commentary. However my fears ultimately proved unfounded as “Fall the House” overcomes the singular obstacles that faced its creative team in the pandemic.
To the credit of everyone involved, here is a production that translates incredibly well to a filmed/live-streamed format. Most noticeably, the show’s technical team uses the tools at their disposal to expertly evoke the play’s place and time. Even without prior knowledge of this adaptation’s new setting, it became immediately apparent that this production is set at the start of the new millennium. This effect is captured most readily via the camera and live-editing work of video producer Galdys Sarafin and technical director David Tolin. Sarafin’s capture of the sparse, natural outdoor lighting (on this fortunately overcast day) created a dreary, wash-out color scheme that carries throughout the entire production. It’s this tone that seemed to mirror (intentionally or not) the harsh, grossly realistic aesthetics found in such 2000’s-era films as “The Matrix” and “Office Space” as well as television like “The Office.” Interspersed are quick camera cuts and other humorous editing quirks (e.g. a canned sound effect of a goat’s bray that plays every time the shot focuses on the Piano Man’s pet), recalling the over-the-top aesthetic of reality shows and music videos.
Technical aspects aside, “Fall the House” benefits from director Rae’s engagingly unconventional approach to the live reading format. Rae strikes an engaging balance between a semi-staged reading and a fully-blocked stage play. From the start, we notice how the show’s stage — a stoop in front of a UT building — is transformed into a lively neighborhood block. Characters with their scripts in hand relax and trade gossip from this stoop stage while others sheepishly observe the neighborhood’s daily doses of street-side violence from the building’s cracked windows.
What Rae’s staging lacks in props and lavish sets is cleverly substituted with whatever is at hand. The tone of a charmingly awkward conversation between two school-aged characters is set by the actors timidly flipping through their scripts, as if these characters are literally trying to find the right words to say to one another. Likewise, the music stands performers use to prop up their scripts double as a blind man’s cane. In one scene, a stand is thrown to the ground with a thunderous clang to signify a gunshot.
This creative yet barebones approach leaves plenty of room for “Fall The House”‘s greatest strength to shine: Kaidoo’s lyrical prose. His is a pen game that can be hard-hitting one moment, and laugh-out-loud funny in the next. It all makes for script filled with clever wordplay and rhyme, deserving of a second viewing to catch all the subtleties included therein.
To that end, the playwright presents a playground of characterization that is mostly seized upon by the show’s cast. In the effortlessly endearing roles of the neighborhood chorus, student actors Marissa Angel Barker, Ashley Bowern and Makaila Heath command with their interludes of rhyming gossip, context-setting chatter, and tit-for-tat banter. Seizing upon Kiddo’s tongue-twister dialogue — its lyricism and inherent humor — this trio creates a lively atmosphere that holds audiences’ attention throughout the staging.
Elsewhere, in the role of gang leader Ghost, Austin-native John R. Christopher’s turn as a domineering yet regretful Agamemnon stand-in elicits every ounce of pain, regret and anger from his character’s meditations on a life lived by the sword. Indeed, Christopher’s performance and presence feeds the tension filled energy that surrounds him. The drama builds as we work our way towards Ghosts’ final, deadly confrontation with his wife, Nessa (a role played with show-stealing confidence by third-year UTeach Theatre major, Indya McKnight).
But as the play progresses, it becomes clear too that Kaidoo’s high-wrought writing style is a double-edged sword. With a script that’s so jam packed with music and meaning — where each individual line almost seems structurally integral to the overall narrative — one stumble in its delivery makes the line fall hopelessly flat.
Ultimately, this production of “Fall The House” succeeds via its many moving parts, all of which reinforce Kaidoo’s vision: a play with all the heart-on-sleeve emotion of a Greek tragedy that’s also anchored by a down-to-earth, familiarly modern aesthetic. And as theater moves towards its cautious yet excited return to live performance, I’m left hopeful by productions like this one.
With “Fall the House,” I didn’t see a group of college students restrained by pandemic obstacles. I saw a group of devoted, talented theater artists who are working as one to bring an impactful, singular vision to the stage in a way that feels fresh yet also familiar.
“Fall the House” streams on demand through April 24 with pay-what-you-can tickets. theatredance.utexas.edu/event/utnt-ut-new-theatre-fall-house