In his 1990 musical Assassins, Stephen Sondheim wrote “It takes a lot of men to make a gun”.
In their 2018 production of Recoil, University of Pittsburgh Stages proved that it takes a diverse collection of young actors, a skilled director, and a few Pitt police officers to make an often very powerful piece of theatre about guns.
Well, it’s a disservice to say that this show is simply “about guns”. It’s something of a disservice to simply call this production a “show”. The theatrical moments and components of Recoil were created and molded through the process of devising.
Devising is not easily defined by its varied practices or its even more varied results. For me, the most exciting aspect of devising is the chance it presents for everyone in a rehearsal room to wear multiple hats. Actors and directors work together to write the “script” live with their bodies, on their feet, and in harmony.
The content of the ever-evolving gun discussion conglomerate naturally dictates the form of devising. It is much more compelling to hear, see, and feel the scars and opinions held by this 13-member acting ensemble and their director Cynthia Croot than watch them bring someone else’s experience to life.
That being said, Recoil fizzles early on as the actors unpack their personal baggage about guns and consider the great responsibility of putting on a show of this nature in the current climate. I admired that they fearlessly confront the chilling possibility of a shooting happening at the performance itself by calling on the crew and Pitt Police on hand to actually lock down the theater. Unfortunately, this palpable tension is quickly cut by more anti-theatrical chatter.
The show also loses steam when it attempts to contextualize guns in American history. Despite the inclusion of some playful staging and props, these scenes about the proliferation of guns in cowboy culture and popular media play more like recitations of Wikipedia pages than they engage the audience.
Croot utilizes her cast and the conventions of theatre best when narrowing the focus to the ways guns insidiously impact Americans every day. When a child mimes shooting a sibling at the dinner table, the action erupts into a chaotic cacophony of multiplied and repeated gestures that allows almost the whole cast to display their spot on physical timing.
The ensemble’s ability to alternately act as one and stand out individually speaks to the tremendous trust that exists between them. I’m still haunted by the seamless montage of tableaus they created representing some of recent history’s headline-making mass shootings including those at Pulse nightclub in 2016 and Virginia Tech in 2007.
Similarly gripping is the almost wordless recurring domestic drama expertly acted by Julia de Avilez Rocha, Alex Dittmar, and Sarah Kwiatek. This storyline is full of too many heart-stopping twists to spoil, but I will tell you that it will not be the sound of a pin drop that breaks the deafening silence of its climax. I also have to applaud the captivatingly cool and confident performance by Monay Cowan. She is literally on her own with a lot of her views on guns, but it’s refreshing how proudly she stands in her truth and relates her unique experiences.
Gianni Downs’s impressively comprehensive projection design—including YouTube clips, archival photos, and (during a pair of intense monologues) a live video feed—is almost another character in this piece. One such video clip shows a man unloading, reloading, and firing a gun to the percussive beat of “Cups”. It’s a horrifying visual in juxtaposition to the song’s innocent origins in the Pitch Perfect franchise, and the cast extends that dissonance with their own eerie reprise of the number.
Recoil features more musical moments than you’d expect, primarily by way of Elvis. Right out of the gate, the performers attempt to shock the audience by staging the horror of last year’s Las Vegas massacre. The actors themselves quickly put a stop this though. Something about the moment and putting it at the top of the show doesn’t ring true to them. They wonder how people watching the scene will even know it takes place in Las Vegas. As humorously portrayed by Simone Norden and accurately outfitted by Stefanie McGowan, it’s clear that “The King”, while being a strange choice in context of the show, turned out to have a surprising amount of dramatic weight.
In 1968, Elvis Presley originally recorded his hit “A Little Less Conversation”.
In 2018, the cast of Recoil performs an energetic dance number to the song. Luckily, this random contrivance is more the exception than the rule for this affective and effective show. In its totality, this production underlines the fact that a lot more action is urgently needed to begin remedying the toxic relationship between guns and the American people.
Recoil plays in the University of Pittsburgh Stages Studio Theater through April 15. For tickets and more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews