Constructing Ourselves in 12 Peers’ “[blank]”

By Eva Phillips

Two fundamental queries for any devoted theatre-goer or dramaturgically-minded individual should be “what does it mean to be a playwright” and “what constitutes a play?” While dauntingly broad, theatrically-existential questions, they seek to address some of the most critical nuances of theatre—is a play a play without characters? Is a play a play with only characters? Should a playwright be present throughout their script, even if veiled by the subterfuge of their art? How do you know when a story is told properly?

In [blank]—currently staged by Pittsburgh’s innovative 12 Peers Company—experimental playwright Nassim Soleimanpour explores these meta-questions while tinkering with the parameters of the actor’s role, audience involvement, and the general structure of theatre. An auteur of unconventional storytelling, Soleimanpour’s other notable work, White Rabbit Red Rabbit (2010) challenges audience and actor alike, tasking a different, lone performer to engage with material they have never seen before every night, while the audience is forced to intervene on behalf of the actor onstage, using their cellphones, childhood secrets, and other literal and figurative props to save or sacrifice the actor (during its run in New York, audience members resorted to martyrdom to save Brian Dennehy—but who wouldn’t??)

Similarly, [blank] is a play which calls for a different, singular actor to take the stage each night and perform a script they have never encountered nor rehearsed before that evening. Stepping away from any semblance of plot, however, [blank] unfolds like a sort of madcap. Mad-Libian, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure piece in which the script given to the actor is littered with literal blanks that the audience must fill in and bring to life in certain ways. [blank] is comprised of mini-vignettes and improvisational exercises rather than an actual story or definitive narrative tract, each blurring the line between performer and audience further and further.

12 Peers follows Soleimanpour’s formula to the letter, featuring a different performer each night to bring the unfamiliar script to life in front of a new audience. As such, it does a certain disservice to [blank] to review the show in terms of what transpires throughout—both because it spoils the fun of the production, and because what happens on any given night depends entirely on the performer, the audience, and the energy between the parties involved. Moreover, reviewing the show as a show defeats what I imagine Soeimanpour’s vision was when crafting [blank]—that is, to experience the production as an inquisition of self—who are you, what is your story, where does your story end and another begin (or is there any transition at all?)—rather than a hyper-constructed show.

Instead, it seems vastly more appropriate to discuss the aplomb with which the artist leading [blank] the night of my viewing, Daina Michelle Griffith, handled the admittedly daunting task of taking on the material. Artistry is truly the accurate descriptor for what Griffith employs throughout [blank]. Soleimanpour’s work can be, at times, clunky, awkward, and frustrating, particularly as it occupies a paradoxical space in the writer-actor paradigm in which the writer attempts to demonstrate the benefits of relinquish control by exacting control through stylistic choices. And yet, in spite of this, Griffith prevails spectacularly in creating a memorable, energetic, and even poignant experience.

Having most recently seen Griffith radiantly command the stage in City Theatre’s Revolutionists—where she played a writer obsessively fixated on what, or who, made “the best” story—it was evocatively familiar to watch Griffith emphatically probe the audience about the meaning of having a story and what it means for any one of us to participate in storytelling (and even ask, who are we without our stories?). Griffith facilely employs her innate, synergistic gifts as a teacher (particularly lovely given some of her devoted students from her company Griffith Coaching were members of the audience) to effortlessly and enchantingly guide the audience through [blank], and, critically, through some of the more stymying and awkward moments in Soleimanpour’s script. Throughout the various tonal shifts in the show, Griffith efficaciously achieves one of the more difficult balancing acts with total effervescence and acuity—she both makes herself one with audience, just as befuddled and bemused by the unconventionally abrupt changes inserted by Soleimanpour; and gracefully serves as a compassionate leader through the wildly meandering road that is the script. It would be an understatement to call Griffith something so tokenized as a “rare talent.” Rather, she is a tour de force, proving yet again that she not only has an astonishing grasp on and flawless ability to demonstrate an incredible emotional range, but also proving she strikingly quick intelligence and resilience to adapt to a piece that is constructed to be conceptually indomitable.

While Soleimanpour’s conceptual foregrounding can be a trifle convoluted and aggrandizing at times, the overall experimental spirit and heart of [blank] is as fascinatingly moving as it is commendable. 12 Peers deserves ample applause for their sensitive and impressively thorough production of yet again, and their groundbreaking commitment to producing works which both challenge norms and the limitations placed upon inclusivity in theatre.

[blank] will run through May 19th featuring a stupendous line-up of some of the area’s most beloved performers and artists, including Parag Gohel, Brittany Tague, Hazel Leroy, and Sharon Brady. For the entire list of performers and ticket information, visit 12 Peers’ site.

Eva Phillips is celebrating her third year in Pittsburgh, third year writing for (and first year as Editor-in-Chief of) PGH in the Round, and twenty-seventh year not getting murdered (shockingly, despite all odds). She relocated to the brittle Steel City from Virginia to pursue her Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies at CMU (with a concentration in film theory and film criticism, and intersections with feminism and gender), and has spent the past few years in Pittsburgh cultivating her writing career, developing her blog https://www.tuesgayswithmorrie69.net/, raising two show cats, and widening her perspectives on the ever-evolving spectrum of theatre. She only has one Les Miserables tattoo out of her 32 tattoos, and she finds that morally reprehensible.

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