Unnatural Acts seems to come about in a timely manner, given the recent NY senate vote in favor of same sex marriage. It’s based on a long-buried Harvard scandal of 1920 in which a group of homosexual students were “discovered” and essentially put on trial by governing faculty, with the result that most were disgraced and expelled. It’s presented in a kind of docudrama manner, in the spirit (I assume) of “we must never forget” acknowledgements of history, lest we take liberty for granted.
I say “kind of” docudrama because Unnatural Acts is a group effort in more than just the usual ways. The text, some of which is drawn from actual record and transcript, has been dramatized by members of a new, young company called The Plastic Theatre, a good number of whom appear in this remounting of their original production. And with that many authors—one assumes each working at first on a discreet section, then under the guidance of a project leader (one assumes director Tony Speciale) polishing, editing and blending the sections—there’s almost no way to craft a genuinely seamless and style-consistent structure. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this particular experiment is that the exposition isn’t handled efficiently enough to get us into the heart of the matter soon enough (in part because with so many characters of equal weight, the narrative line is diffused) thus it takes quite a while before settling into a storytelling mode that lets us follow an easy train of causality. And also the characters as individuals are not at first well enough particularized to make separate impact (with the exception of maybe two of the most extreme personalities)—curiously, because you’d think that as writing actors in a group endeavor, the particularization of each role would get special attention—so we’re at arms’ length for too long.
Still, though, there is a good deal of economic theatrical invention here, and even before the point where familiarity and heightened stakes conjoin to let us feel the story viscerally—which, when it does arrive, marks a dramatic tension that stays for keeps—there’s a sense of “event” about the play, and an intriguing buzz as the piece unfolds.
I can’t tell you that makes Unnatural Acts is a “must see.” But it does make it one of those things that leaves a unique impression, not soon forgotten. Which in the end, I guess, is rather the point…
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