The little independent theatre’s world-premiere production of Conversations with Hitler by Steven R. Bond is a work more than eight months in the making. Bond based this play on a real playwriting support group that he attended, and collaborated with director Julya M. Mirro on this epic and absurdist look into life in prison.
Mirro and Bond worked on this script for months through telephone interviews, mailed handwritten copies, and e-mailed edits. Then Bond worked with the little independent theatre team, while incarcerated, to bring this truly unique work to life. Still incarcerated, Bond has won numerous playwriting awards, including the second-place PEN award and his work being performed in the inspiraTO festival.
That being said, I left the little independent theatre’s production very confused. After taking part in the preshow immersive experience, in which you get the experience of visiting a prison, I had high hopes for the show. Being shuttled around, shifted from place to place by uncaring C.O.s (correctional officers) and the overeager new warden, played by Mirro herself, and finally filing into the performance space, with hanging lights and harsh worklights setting up the stark meeting room, I was already excited for an interesting experience.
We were even told to stow our belongings under our seats, so that prisoners wouldn’t steal them. However, after sitting in silence, watching the prisoners set up the space with big plastic chairs, the show started and I became less clear about what Conversations with Hitler was supposed to be.
As wonderful as the sound design was, as much as the harsh lights by production stage manager Anthony Buckner and the continuous uncomfortable presence of the C.O.s played by Sean Malone and Keegan Kennedy helped set an amazing atmosphere, after the preshow, I had no idea what was going on.
Maybe it was the fault of the sound design, or maybe it was the dialects and mannerisms that the actors were asked to take on; but for much of the play, I had no idea what the characters were saying. Articulation and projection aside, I also had a very hard time keeping track of who the characters were and what they meant to each other.
Only because I stayed for the talkback, I learned that the whole company had done a considerable amount of research on the original group that Bond was a part of; and many of the actors were playing as many as five different roles. Beyond that, I was also very confused about the structure of the play. Acting out scenes for the playwriting workshop, the play seemed to switch between actual plays, backstories for the characters, actual exchanges at the prison, and possibly future events.
All of that taken into account, the distortion of what is “real” and what isn’t, what is the truth and what is a play, and the feelings of confusion and distress could have been well the point of Mirro’s direction of Conversations with Hitler.
As the play goes on, the idea of solitary confinement and of other prisoners leaving, possibly the solitary. As PBS reports, the practice of solitary confinement, “can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory. Some inmates lose the ability to maintain a state of alertness, while others develop crippling obsessions.”
The point of this production could have been to capture that feeling of alienation and isolation, that feeling where you don’t know what is real and what isn’t, and the expectation that nothing is real and everything is choreographed. But the way it was carried out, it just felt like bad theater.
I do believe that Conversations with Hitler is an important work and a compelling work and to do this is amazing, but I also believe this play needed more time. I think there needed to be more work, technically and otherwise, to define the characters, where and when scenes took place, and on overall clarity to make sure it delivered the intended experience.
With all of that out of the way, there was some strong work, albeit overshadowed by my confusion. Jim Azarelo, playing E.B. et al., had a strong comedic quality and his characters were more or less distinguishable. Noelle Barnard Azarelo, as Cashmere et al., and Liza Guzman, as O.G. et al., definitely created strong characters and did a wide variety of character work. Both women did a considerable amount of costume and character flips. However, it took me around 30 minutes to realize that they were playing men.
Roberto Diaz, as Hagel, had the emotional vulnerability and strength that the character needed. Justin Peoples, as D. Lou et al., was the comedic center of the play and played his role well, though like many of the other actors, including Azarelo and Guzman, I felt like he was playing a type rather than a full person — but that may have been the point.
Livian Kennedy’s, as Bob et al., definitely had the most confusing portrayals. Many of her characters had very specific mannerisms that I didn’t 100 percent understand the point of, including for Bob, constant trips to the bathroom. She definitely had great presence and the right emotional strength, particularly for her role at the end of the play, but I always wanted to know more.
John Paul Middlesworth had the clearest character, that of Ernest primarily. He played the pretentious, and often inappropriate, academic very well in a way that united the cast.
Overall, I can’t discount that the majority of the cast spent eight months developing the work with director Julya Mirro and dramatist Steven Bond, with some of their improvisations finding a place in the final script. Their work, as a whole, was strong; but the play needs more clarity, whether it is achieved via stronger direction or technical elements.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend this play if you wanted to see a perfect, sound play that will make you feel good about yourself. It’s not Orange Is the New Black and it’s not Oz. Bond’s Conversations with Hitler is a unique and valuable experience. Because of the intensity, and also because it contains content like suicide, molestation, murder, and implied sexual content, I wouldn’t recommend it for most children.
If you want to see a powerful work-in-progress, if you want to see something that will make you feel uncomfortable but interested, and if you want to see something by a passionate team that has been working to make something for months and months — go see it. It’s not a perfect work — in fact, it’s very confusing and a little distressing, but the post-show talkback and the overall experience makes it something worth a try.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 16th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/conversations-with-hitler/Event?oid=7406061. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 22nd Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/08/steven-r-bonds-conversations-with-hitler-has-its-good-points-but-its-drawbacks-create-confusion/.)
The little independent theatre presents CONVERSATIONS WITH HITLER, a world premiere by Steven R. Bond at 8 p.m. Aug. 25-27 and Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio, 3801 Hillsborough St., Suite 113, Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $16.52 ($11.34 students and educators, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), including service fee.
NOTE 1: The little independent theatre encourages Triangle theatergoers to arrive by 7:30 p.m. “[t]o participate in an immersive experience …. We start promptly at 8 p.m., and there is no late seating for this show.”
NOTE 2: The little independent theatre warns that “this production contains adult language and situations:.”
Julya M. Mirro (Raleigh, NC director, founder at ARClitE, and artistic director at little independent theatre): https://www.facebook.com/julya.mirro (Facebook page).
Katy Koop is a writer, comedic actor, and stage manager based in Cary, NC. As a freelance writer, her work has been published by Later, Femsplain, and Hello Giggles. When she’s not writing or involved in a local production, she’s tweeting under the handle @katykooped. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.