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February 24th, 2010 By Rick Pender | Arts & Culture | Posted In: Theater

Transmigration: Creativity Under the Grow Lights

On Feb. 19 and 20, I spent about six hours at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music wandering from room to room and space to space to see theatrical works created by students in CCM’s drama program. The “event” is called Transmigration, a term that suggests souls that are evolving, and that’s pretty much what it felt like I was witnessing.

Transmigration is the brainchild of department chair Richard Hess, who uses virtually all of the students in his conservatory program. They're divided up into teams in order to write, rehearse, promote and perform eight distinct pieces, each about 30 minutes in length. It’s an ambitious and arduous undertaking, a bit messy and disruptive. But that’s the essence of creativity, and I suspect the students love being engaged in this unusual gestation process for works that spring from their own minds.

As students in a drama program, they're typically in plays written by others and directed by their elders. Transmigration gives them the opportunity to understand what a playwright has to do and how a work moves from idea and concept to stage and performance. There's a kind of fresh idealism to these works, which makes sense since the students are undergraduates, most of them under the age of 22.

Their works reflect the trauma of love that’s fresh then lost or humor that’s adolescent. But I went with that expectation: This festival is a bit like the younger sibling of the annual Cincy Fringe Festival, full of energy and open-mindedness about what can be achieved with some actors and a space to perform.

Change Corp. and deadREM were performed in the lower atrium lobby space adjacent to Patricia Corbett Theater. Both pieces depended on pre-recorded sound, which was unfortunate because the acoustics were garbled. Set in the realm of dreaming and escape, deadRem had a disjointed quality that was intriguing, though the emotions were rather naively presented as a young man pined for a young woman who had died — should he dream of her or pass over into the nether world where she might still be around?

Change Corp. added projected imagery to its vocabulary of ideas, which meant it couldn’t be presented during the matinee slot on Saturday because there was too much ambient light. The story of a drifting young man who is swept away by a cult-like group of positive thinkers (full of empty, radiant smiles and clad in white T-shirts) was meant to shock audiences when it’s revealed what’s behind the organization. The predictable outcome made the piece less engaging.

Still Life, a work that leaned heavily on movement and choreography was about people (and perhaps puppets) whose lives seemed to be determined by forces beyond their control. (A puppeteer stood on a balcony throughout the piece as if he were making the performers move according to his whim.) The piece was interesting to watch and skillfully performed, but its meaning escaped me.

Sharing the Cohen Family Studio Theater space with Still Life was Happiness Is a Supple Puppy. The inscrutable title perhaps implied an odd, maybe suggestive tone, and the piece had a number of elements that might be interpreted as the result of too much testosterone. Some of it was over-the-top and intentionally offensive, but two actors carved out memorable characters: Parker Searfoss, who is small and manic, whipped through a half-dozen roles, including hyperactive a police investigator, that kept the audience laughing; Alec Silberblatt was a radio talk-show dream analyst who sounded for all the world like a Borscht-Belt comedian from the 1920s — funny, crude, distracted and extremely watchable.

Four works were presented in studio classrooms. Flushed was a bizarre story of a mute fellow who gets sucked into a happy dream world through a secret toilet stall; the work had some interesting contrasts of control and freedom, and the simple emotions were pleasant, but the work didn't hold my interest.

Tap Dancing on Jell-o had a more traditional script, with two sets of seemingly unrelated characters whose stories unfolded in counterpoint. One was about a marriage that’s failing because of self-centered communication; the other about two guys who meet randomly and find some common ground that helps each to move on. The piece showed some promising writing (and had two very amusing female characters), but it needed more development.

When a show is called Stupid and begins with an invitation to call out suggestions of stupid things, I didn't have very high expectations. But this piece was made genuinely funny by several excellent comic performances, especially Dione Kuraoka, who has a rubbery face she can use to make right-angle turns from grief to laughter to pain. Her moments in a ladies room when a man inadvertently ends up in a nearby stall, and especially when she’s an orderly posing as a doctor and delivering ridiculously bad news to a worried patient, were comic highlights.

My favorite piece during Transmigration was 47 Bottles in a Lake, a very thoughtful show about secrets. The performance area was ringed by beer bottles, wine bottles, liquor bottles and more. Each with a slip of paper, a message in a bottle as it were, with a secret someone had shared. The piece alternated between cast members reading from slips of paper they'd collected during the process of building the piece and more fully constructed scenes about a secret teenage romance, an admired cousin who was secretly a drug addict and more. The acting was solid, and its intentions were just right for the performers. Student actor Amy Berryman played a central role in several elements with an air of serious openness that made her watchable and charismatic.

I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to see these works, even the ones I couldn’t quite figure out. I like to see creativity under the grow lights, and that’s what was going on at CCM last weekend.

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