Encore Michigan

‘Intentions’ at Matrix explores socio-political purity

Review February 11, 2017 Paula Bradley

DETROIT, Mich. – Intentions is a timely, thought provoking play by Detroit native Abbey Fenbert, currently playing at Matrix Theatre Company under the direction of Molly McMahon. Intentions effectively pokes fun at political correctness and community harmony in order to explore individual happiness.

This modern story is set at Tillerman House, an “intentional community” and urban farm. Its members live under an agreement—by-laws, actually—to maintain a self-sustaining and deliberately socially conscious lifestyle. They go beyond recycling, gardening and raising goats and bees. They eschew hierarchical systems such as capitalism; they refer to their household duties as “contributions” (the term “chores” is too prejudicial), and they favor validations of respect in place of traditional apologies, which promote guilt. They support causes such as “horizontal democracy,” “anarcho-communitarianism” and “neo-pagan social justice,” just to name a few. And above all, they cherish open communication and complete honesty with each other.

While there is no official leader, they look to elder member Gabe as their guru, who was, in fact, a college professor—fired from at least two positions—and has been around the world searching for social enlightenment. Maya is the laid-back master of yoga, who seems to rely on the physical practice to suppress her feelings. Nell is the most intense about making deliberate choices, to the point of being neurotic. Lou is the free-spirited girl who carries her guitar around and writes songs about feminism.

The initial conflict of the story is triggered when Lou returns from a stint at an Alaskan fish hatchery with a new boyfriend in tow, Leif (as in the marauding Viking, not the plant), and they accept him when he agrees to abide by their principles. Although Leif is excited about learning their ways, he is not a true believer. He has a conventional background: he is a non-intellectual, a frat boy and an athlete. Yet when Nell points out this truth, she immediately feels guilty for being judgmental and “elitist.” “We all come to our knowledge by a different path,” she admits to Gabe.

Nell and Leif seem to be complete opposites. She believes in so many causes which impose so many “rules” for living that she cannot seem to enjoy life. She admits that she has too many important things to care about to worry if other people like her. Leif, on the other hand, is gregarious and childlike. Nell cannot comprehend how he can chill out and drink “racist” beer, but Leif is hard to dislike, giving her the nickname “Nella wafer.” And Nell finds herself drawn to his eagerness to live and learn.

Greater conflict arises as Nell slowly realizes she has more than just friendly and communal feelings for Leif. She reveals something about Lou’s past which, while technically not a secret, re-opens some old wounds, made worse when they attempt to address them in a group meeting. Nell is even more conflicted by the fact that she finds herself caving in to patriarchal conventions of oppression—makeup and dresses—and she has a moment of enlightenment when she notices that personal feelings of femininity and pleasure have momentarily crowded out her feelings of social guilt.

They are all jolted back to reality, however, when a disaster destroys part of their eco-system. As a group, they are forced to confront the reality that their satisfaction at being socially conscious and living by strict principles of communal good often comes at the price of their individual happiness.

The small cast works well in the intimate setting at the Matrix Theatre to take the audience to places it might not expect. Cast members work dynamically together, while independently portraying very different personalities. Samer Ajluni as Gabe, the herbalist who views ecological practices as a metaphor for life, remains the stoic guru, attempting to balance the wild emotions of his fellow house members. Sam Moltmaker as Maya embodies the pain of personal sacrifice for the greater good of communal harmony. Her impact on the story comes less from dialogue and more from reaction, and she only needs a few well-timed moments to portray Maya’s internal struggle. Emily Harpe gives perhaps the most effortless performance as Lou, the member most comfortable with her life choices and the least weighed down by guilt.

Artun Kircali is almost solely responsible for the comic elements of the story. He lightens the serious mood and balances the radical behavior of the other house members with joie de vive. He bounces around the house drumming on furniture, and doesn’t feel shame about his politically incorrect desire to win at basketball.

Siena Hassett, as Nell, is responsible for both her comic portrayal of Nell’s neurotic behavior, which includes many physical manifestations of anxiety, and also some of the most serious instances of self-doubt and internal struggle. The audience is never left guessing about what she is feeling, even when she is not saying it. She and Kirkali convincingly play out the theory that “opposites attract.”

The set is interestingly decorated with modern versions of “hippie” culture. Lighting and sound design, while minimal, are used effectively and convincingly to enhance the story. Although one instance felt a bit contrived, the elements of symbolism, such as falling leaves, a broken gourd and a shared mason jar beverage, are used mostly to good effect.

Whether this is a comedy or drama should be left up to each audience member to decide. Either way, there is little better way to get people to think about serious topics than by poking fun at them, and Intentions does that well.

Intentions is playing at Matrix Theatre through February 26, 2017.

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