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[HEARTSIDE] Revolutionary theatre company challenges Grand Rapids on eve of G-20 summit

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Pleuss and Turk in <em>Ulysses' Crewmen</em> [<a href="">more</a>]

Pleuss and Turk in Ulysses' Crewmen [more] /George Wietor

Ulysses' Crewmen, a violent drama staged Wednesday evening at the Division Avenue Arts Collective (The DAAC–115 S. Division Ave.) by the Milwaukee-based Insurgent Theatre, expertly challenges the psychological motivation behind direct activism. 

The self-described "anarchist play" takes place over one act, in the aftermath of the kidnapping of Ulysses, a member of the US delegation to this year’s G-20 Trade Summit. The play's primary protagonist, an unidentified anarchist played by the excellent Kate Pleuss, successfully evades authorities only to be left alone in a safehouse somewhere in the greater Pittsburgh-area to pick up the pieces. She is in a messy place – the rest of her cell have disappeared, presumed dead, and is left alone figure out just what to do with the captive delegate (playwright Ben Turk). Any delusions of grandeur she may have once had quickly disappear as she ponders the possible ineffectualness of this particular brand of direct action. If the delegate will just be replaced, what’s the point of any of this? Why are my friends gone and is radical change even truly possible? Appropriately, she freaks.
This is the kind of tactical discussion that Ulysses' Crewmen looks to have. Prior to the performance, Turk and Pleuss gave a brief introduction to Ulysses' Crewmen, outlining several of the production's narrative and theoretical inspirations. While Turk pays titular homage to Homer’s classic, the real theoretical influence comes from the early twentieth-century German playwright and radical Bertolt Brecht. “Brecht believed that theatre is revolutionary,” Turk said, “We do too. He made propaganda for communists, but we’re not that organized.” Brecht is famous for pioneering what he called “the distancing effect.” Brecht used unexpected techniques, such as directly addressing the audience and speaking stage directions out loud, to prevent the audience from falling into the complacent state that he believed came with observing familiar theatrical forms. Both punctuate Ulysses Crewman throughout.
Because Turk’s Ulysses spends the entirety of the play bound and gagged, the vast majority of the drama is left to Pleuss. And, clearly, she is up for it. Neither performance was particularly subtle, but Pleuss’ performance drives the play’s point home. Direct action, as noble as it may sound on paper, becomes very convoluted when everything hits the fan. The narrative is further complicated by the Brechtian qualities of the play. Pleuss’ stage direction takes on an additional role as Pleuss recites relevant quotes by famous revolutionaries (Example - “There’s no way to be committed to non-violence in one of the most violent societies that history has ever created – Bernadine Dohrn, 1969”). These quotes become a veritable Greek chorus towards the end of the play, as they come to represent the words of the anarchist’s fallen comrades (namesakes of Ulysses' literary crewmen). These words were also made available to the audience prior to the play with instructions that they are meant to be read during the performance. Though, no one did. At least not out loud.
The major limitation of Ulysses' Crewmen was its staging. The play is meant to be staged on the ground, with the audience encircling the performers.  However, because of the narrow layout of the DAAC, most of the nearly 20 people in attendance had to watch the performance from an angle that made it difficult to see much of the action. The actors were blocked in such away that the audience spent most of the time looking at Pleuss’ back. While the staging didn’t dampen the overall effect of the play, a better view would have made the violent elements of the hostage scenario that much more powerful.
The performance, part of a multi-week tour of infoshops and DIY art spaces across the East Coast and Midwest, was the last before the group headed to Pittsburgh to perform in protest of the G-20 Summit's opening day on Sept. 24. You can follow the Crewmen’s tour on a meticulously kept blog here.
Disclosure: the author of this piece is a volunteer at the Division Avenue Arts Collective, but was not involved in the curation or production of this play.

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