Encore Michigan

‘State of Emergency’ in need of acute care

Review February 23, 2013 Bridgette Redman

People can disagree on what elements are necessary for theater. Some might require a play to have a plot or characters or a theme. Others would say all that is required is an actor and an audience.

Through those strictest of definitions, “State of Emergency,” a new work by the new troupe, Shop Floor Theatre Company, is a play. It even strives to fall into an avant garde category through the use of such methods as verbatim and devised theater.

But no amount of cleverness, political relevancy or experimenting can rescue a work that is self-absorbed, unfocused and weighed down in unnecessary detail.

The topic itself has potential – the hijinks of the Michigan governor and legislature in taking over primarily African-American cities and making their elected officials impotent. It is a story pregnant with drama, and one that urgently needs to be told.

Unfortunately, the Shop Floor Theatre Company lacks discipline and fails to make the choices necessary to give the story punch. Instead it meanders, flounders and throws in device after device without committing to any of them.

The opening promises much. It begins with a high-energy pantomime that acts as a dumb show for everything that is to come. The movement is intense, frenetic, focused and a great attention-grabber. Once done, nothing like it is repeated in the show, nor does it fairly establish what is to come.

Too often, the play proceeds like a lecture with actors explaining complicated legislative processes at great length. Much of the information was collected through interviews and documentation found in public records and on websites. However, Shop Floor Theatre needed to judiciously apply a scalpel to what they presented. The avalanche of details served more to confuse than to clarify. Even a news show or a newspaper article would have done more sorting and analyzing of the material, cherry picking the important parts so it was relevant to the audience.

The play also fell too often into the trap of telling the audience what it was going to tell them and then telling them rather than showing it. The repetition was unnecessary and eliminated any hope of dramatic tension. It is a fairly good test that if you have to tell an audience what it is you are trying to do, then you didn’t succeed in doing it – and you need to try something else.

The second act opened with the “writers” sitting around having coffee and discussing what to put in the play and assessing the first act. This might have been a workable device had it been used consistently throughout the show and not just thrown in for a 15-minute period in the middle and then abandoned again. Any one of the motifs or devices sprinkled through the play could have been effective had it been committed to.

While different costumes denoted a variety of real-life people being portrayed, there was little to distinguish the characters from each other in voice, movement or motivation. They were merely cardboard figures dressed up to read exposition. Across the cast, delivery was uneven. There were a few who were clear and commanding while others meandered through a morass of “ums and ahs.” Not even Hank Reed’s portrayal of Mike Brown, the emergency manager who shows up most frequently, had enough depth to be interesting as a character.

The goal that Shop Floor Theatre Company pursues is a worthy one. The topic is relevant and urgent and while difficult to bring to the stage, holds great potential. Their process, which they explained before the show opened, is an exciting one that could inform great drama. “State of Emergency” is the troupe’s first work. It is hopeful that they will learn from the process and future projects will be more condensed, dramatic and compelling.

For now, “State of Emergency” needs to spend some time in triage.