Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Iphigenia and Other Daughters
Chain Reaction's artistic director Shelley Smith states "the mission of our company is to bring to light important social justice issues, inspire people to take action, and shine a light on the important work that others are doing to be part of the solution." They partner with community organizations that provide performance venues and offer resources and services addressing the issues highlighted in a specific show. For example, at the end of 2017 Chain Reaction presented their original work Body and Sold which addressed sex trafficking and was timed to run just before the 2018 Super Bowl, an event that is accompanied by increased business for sex traffickers, was held in Minneapolis.
While What Guys Really Want is a terrific piece of theater, the title is misleading. The show is a series of separate piecesmini-plays, vignettes, monologues, and poemsthat form a full-length work of theater, but mostly does not answer the question of what guys really want. Rather, it casts light on the strain and stress of being a man, with the incumbent expectation to be masculine, whatever that means. The content came from exhaustive interviews with men, as well as their mothers, fathers, partners, counselors and psychologists, and submissions from writers around the country. All of the experiences presented in What Guys Really Want are based on real lives, and the authenticity of their source material is felt throughout the text and the performances.
This is not a simplistic picture of masculinity in America. The notion of "toxic masculinity" surfaces, but there is a clear effort to avoid the premise that masculinity is in its very nature toxic. A vast range of male lives are revealed: fathers, sons, white, African-American, Latino, Asian, straight, gay, trans, teenagers in the inner city, kids in rural America, substance and alcohol abusers, wife abusers, homeless men, clergymen, men who pay for sex, men in prison, men in the service, veterans, frat boys, athletes, artists, factory workers, and businessmen.
There are poignant, beautifully crafted segments, such as a grown son's remembrance of a childhood hunting trip with his father, when he triedand failedto pass the test of "being a man." In a short play, an older man's family tries to stave off the downward slide of his severe alcoholism and self-loathing. One man, whose father left when he was four years old, vows to break his family's generational cycle of men who leave, to be the first man in his family line to not leave. There are laugh out loud funny bits too, like the college student, a self-described lady's man, coaching his nerdy buddy on how to pick up a girl in the school's library, including the importance of expressing a fondness for Josh Groban. We also hear from women, such as a recitation of all the reasons "mansplaining" is so odious.
What Guys Really Want was staged in a small, square playing area with the audience seated on audience. The house lights remained on throughout, as there is no theater lighting in most of the venues that have hosted the show. Shelley Smith directed the work with brisk precision, moving the many constituent parts swiftly as the actors move from part to part, using minimal costume changes smartly designed by Cindy Forsgrena vest, a hat, a hoodie, a prison jump suitto become, so to speak, a new man.
The cast members dazzled in their quick changes and broad range from one character to another, and in the conviction with which they summoned the true lives they played from scene to scene. Eric Marinus was especially compelling as the older alcoholic at the end of his rope. Naved Baysudee and Nolan Henningson were deeply touching in a paired monologue describing their small-town boyhoods and growing awareness of being gay. Jordan Mitchell, a large-framed man, was bitterly droll sharing the advice he received from women when he asked them how to keep other women from being afraid when they pass him in the park. Justin Cervantes gave a chilling account of a 45-year-old man whose life goes on the skids when his wife leaves him. The women cast members deserve mention as well, Emily Carlson, Elizabeth Efteland and Mai See Lee, with no false notes among them.
While the production had no lighting effects, Nathan Schlitz's sound design provided important tonal elements, with music playing very quietly to create a backdrop for many of the scenes, and effects such as crickets and birds in the country, typewriters in an office setting, and gunfire in combat.
The material that constitutes What Guys Really Want is a virtually encyclopedic display of the challenges that accompany the call to be masculine. Some of the men shown have overcome their ordeal and seem to have arrived at happy, balanced lives, while others remain utterly destroyed. What Guys Really Want does not depict men who are raised by tuned-in parents, avoid major battles with the demons of masculinity, and become emotionally healthy adults. Granted, those stories would probably lack dramatic punch. Also, the fact is that a large percent of men in our culture have lives outside the lines of that ideal state. If it were possible, is that the narrative that most men would choose? Is that what guys really want? The play does not veer in that direction, but does, in its final moments, offer a balm for soothing the bruises brought on masculinity in all of its misguided forms.
Perhaps Chain Reaction Theater Project will find the means to re-mount the show in the future. In any event, I recommend keeping your eye on this energetic company offering theater that entertains, but goes further, to invite reflection and prompt action around import social issues. I know I will be keeping a watch out for them.
Chain Reaction Theatre Project's What Guys Really Want played from February 9, 2019 - March 4, 2019, in nine performances at churches and community organizations throughout the metro area. For information about Chain Reaction Theatre Project, visit chainreactiontp.com.
Creator, Editor and Director: Shelley Smith; Scenic Design: Robin McIntyre; Costume Design: Cindy Forsgren; Sound Design: Nathan Schliz; Stage Manager: Moriah Harting; Assistant Stage Manager: Amala Harrison.
Cast: Naved Baysudee, Emily Carlson, Justin Cervantes, Elizabeth Efteland, Nolan Henningson, Mai See Lee, Eric Marinus, Jordan Mitchell.