Note: We discovered, after the fact, that the Facebook page for this event includes the suggestion: “for an immersive experience, plan to arrive 30 minutes early, meeting around back in the garage.” Unaware, we arrived a scant 15 minutes early, in the middle of this preshow experience and kind of had to play catch-up.
Conversations with Hitler is a new play by Steven R. Bond currently being produced by little independent theatre at the newly relocated Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh. Bond is a prison inmate in Kentucky; and this play, containing autobiographical elements, is set in a prison.
As audience, we witness a session of a writing program with six inmates participating. There is a facilitator who sort-of has to “herd cats,” while administrating this program (which is intended to assist these inmates as they learn to express themselves through writing plays). The bulk of the action alternates between the acting out of their scenes, their comments on the scenes, and their discussions of the writing process itself.
This production is an ambitious undertaking with a noble goal. Although there are some flaws that made our overall experience unsatisfying, we found several poignant moments in the performance. Some were entertaining, and some were enlightening.
In addition, portrayals of many of the characters were spot-on, using very authentic language and accents. (Indeed, anyone who has taught in the public school system nowadays will easily recognize the situation and the “types” presented.)
We can best encapsulate our impression of this character with a note of irony: he is committed to going through the motions of striving to help these inmates. Assuming that to be the intent, we would have to say that Middlesworth nails it.
The discussions that Ernest “Ernest-ly” leads afford insights into the character of the inmates and their diverse reasons for attending the program. It is helpful to keep in mind the tidbits of information that we have assimilated about each of these fledging playwrights as we watch their scenes performed. Doing so opens up additional levels of interpretation.
The central character is Geronimo Hagel (played by Roberto Diaz). Hagel has recently spent time in solitary confinement and is soon to be released from prison. Diaz navigates us through the various levels of facades that Hagel has had to assume in order to survive and to strive to grow in this stifling environment. More importantly, Diaz invites us to glimpse Hagel’s struggles as he tries to come to terms with his inner demons. Indeed, Diaz succeeds in making us sympathetic to this character.
Each of the other actors plays several roles. Each plays an inmate who attends the writing program, and each then plays additional characters as needed.
Here is one of our points of confusion: We were never 100 percent sure whether these additional characters were intended simply to be characters played by these inmates in the scenes that they were enacting, if they were other inmates joining the group, or if they were characters played by other inmates joining the group.
Another source of our confusion: As the group prepares to act out a scene, the playwright hands out scripts, and this action is mimed. That is, no actual physical scripts are handed out; and while the actors mime the handling of scripts during the first few moments of each scene, the imaginary scripts soon disappear. As a result, we had a hard time discerning, for sure, when and where the scripted scene ended to be superseded by what appeared to be bickering between the inmate-actors or by ethereal visitations by imagined visitors.
To their credit, all of the actors flesh out their primary roles well. It is obvious, for example, that Noelle Barnard Azarelo’s Cashmere has no interest in this program and is simply using it as “something to do.” Jim Azarelo’s E.B. and Justin Peoples’ D.Lou, on the other hand, buy into the idea of benefiting from these sessions. Director Julya Mirro’s decision to seat these two characters side-by-side helps to accentuate the differences between them.
If this were a high-school class rather than a prison program, Ernest would have sent Bob to “the office” immediately. Kennedy also plays a rather enigmatic role as a kind of meta-dramatic antagonist to Diaz’s Hagel, and (another confusion) we could not be sure if this antagonist was supposed to be Bob or another, unnamed character.
For the sake of verisimilitude, there is a sound system supplying the background noise of a crowded prison. This does enhance the illusion that we are visiting the actual facility, but there were times that this noise played way too loudly and hampered our ability to focus on the onstage action.
This production of Bond’s play is framed by a device that is intended to create the abovementioned “immersive experience.” Director Julya Mirro and a volunteer act as box office personnel, and Sean Malone and Keegan Kennedy portray prison guards. They are joined by John Paul Middlesworth’s character (Ernest) who, along with Mirro, speaks with the audience in the lobby, creating the illusion that we are about to enter an actual prison and witness an actual session of this program in progress.
Mirro’s character is (delightfully) air-headedly enthusiastic about the situation; her partner (played during the Saturday, Aug 19th, opening-night performance by Tara Nicole Williams) is (delightfully) blatantly bored and disinterested. While we can see the merits of the extra layer of verisimilitude created by this immersion, we want to point out a few drawbacks.
Drawback #1. The preshow activity distracted us from our customary perusal of the program, and we therefore failed to notice that five of the actors were credited with playing a primary character et al. (intended to signify a variety of other characters). As a result, we had to overcome a high degree of confusion when actors (in slightly modified costumes) started speaking in different accents and using different body language.
Drawback #2. When the play itself ended, and Mirro (in her pre-show character) spoke to the audience to invite us to attend a post-show talkback, we were unsure as to whether it was an actual talkback with the actors (and, therefore, optional) or a mock talkback with the characters (and, therefore, an essential part of the performance of the play, an “Act 2,” so to speak).
The play has its good points; but although supporting a project such as this is admirable, we cannot give it an unqualified recommendation.
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 Katy Koop, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/08/lits-conversations-with-hitler-is-an-epic-and-absurdist-but-confusing-look-at-prison-life/.)
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).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.