STAGE REVIEWS: ‘Discord,’ ‘Straight White Men’

Ian Ferguson, Jeremy Schwartz, and John-Michael Marrs in DISCORD at WaterTower Theatre. Photo by Karen Almond.

There’s a lot of interesting things going on theatrically lately, even if it’s mostly coming from middle-aged, white, heterosexual Christian males — a terribly under-represented societal segment, I know, but stick with me.

There are three such men at the center of WaterTower Theatre‘s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, an unwieldy title for a heady comic discourse about ego and religion. In a strange mirrored room outside the space-time continuum, three historic figures with a penchant for writing — Jefferson (Ian Ferguson), Dickens (John-Michael Marrs) and Tolstoy (Jeremy Schwartz) — are thrown together by an unknown being… but for what purpose? They eventually realize their common bond is that they each have a different concept of Christian scripture, from fundamentalism (Dickens) to humanism (TJ) to some kind of synthesis (Leo). But which is “right”?

Employing historical figures as avatars to stand in for ideas isn’t new, and neither is segregating them in a crucible for conflict (No Exit), but writer Scott Carter doesn’t do so with pomposity, but with great human and insight. He’s a writer for Real Time with Bill Maher, so there’s already a baseline of religious skepticism you can expect, but Carter doesn’t tip his hand too much. Though Dickens (a flamboyantly self-interested caricature, wonderfully captured by Marrs) seems to be the object of most criticism, the point of the play is that, when it comes to spirituality, or even principles, we are all hypocrites. Because we just don’t know.

It may be early to say this, but I sincerely feel that Emily Scott Banks, who directed Discord, may herself be the spiritual successor to Rene Moreno. Like him, she has a fluid yet mysterious grasp both theatrical presentation and humanity. There’s rarely a false note in any of the shows I’ve seen her direct. She and Moreno share an eye for good casting, but are also able to bring out the best in their actors. In addition to Marrs, Ferguson and Schwartz are perfectly suited, and never become rigid archetypes, but remain genuine people. Over 80 fast-paced minutes, we get a lesson not only of giants of the 19th century, but insights into ourselves.

Ward, Wall, Potter and Campbell — men’s men. Photo by Karen Almond.

The lessons, and the people involved, are far less upfront in Straight White Men from Second Thought Theatre. It’s Christmastime, and a family of men — a dad (Bradley Campbell) and his three sons (Thomas Ward, Drew Wall, Brandon Potter) — have gathered to celebrate the holidays and needle each other mercilessly. The holidays often bring out negative feelings among family, although this doesn’t come across as one of those turning point melodramatic dramedies. Dad is jovial but tends to keep his head in the sand about his oldest son (Ward), an Ivy Leaguer who has moved back home to a menial job while one brother (Potter) is a successful if cutthroat banker and the other (Wall) a college prof and acclaimed novelist. Why hasn’t the older brother, who had more promise than the other, met with success? Is he not enough of a shark? Or is he not drowning himself in psychiatry to unravel his tortured soul? And why should any of them try to be their brother’s keeper?

The title, and the cast (well, most of it), would seem to suggest that these characters should be the unrepentant masters of their universe — they even play a Monopoly-esque board game their late mom invented called Privilege, to remind themselves of their advantages … but was the game meant to chasten them, or reassure them? They each seem to experience it differently. But in fact, there are other people onstage during these scenes of domesticity: Two Persons-in-Charge (Christine Sanders and Zo Pryor), who, between scenes, pose the men and occasionally eve direct their actions, like disinterested puppetmasters, forcing the men to play out their scenes are the P-in-Cs — or even, society — mandates. Maybe the privileges of masculine dominance … weigh on them? Perhaps all their homoerotic fraternal horseplay is a coping mechanism for human meaningful interaction.

The ultimate message of SWM — like Discord, directed by a woman, Christina Vela — isn’t how obnoxious these stand-ins for the mainstream are, but how that obnoxiousness may disguise many doubts and weaknesses. Maybe we’re supposed to have sympathy for the devil — not because he needs it, but because we need to give it to him.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dynamic duo

Couple Jennifer Pickert and Kara Robinson pursue fitness goals together and apart

In most relationships, uttering phrases like “take a hike” or “just walk out that door” would be a telltale sign of discord. But for couple Kara Robinson and Jennifer Pickert, it’s a term of endearment. And while they may have separate workout routines, they come together to chat and cheer each other on and occasionally to show some true love on the tennis court.

— Jef Tingley

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Though Pickert and Robinson have different fitness interests — basketball versus tennis, for example — they motivate each other to do more. (Photo by Arnold Wayne Jones)

Though Pickert and Robinson have different fitness interests — basketball versus tennis, for example — they motivate each other to do more. (Photo by Arnold Wayne Jones)

Names and ages: Kara Robinson, 46, and Jennifer Pickert, 39.

Occupations: Robinson: editor; Pickert, consultant

Length of relationship: 12 years

Sports & activities you participate in: Tennis, walking, hiking, yoga, circuit training and riding bikes.

Exercise regimen: Robinson: I run three times per week, walk two times, and I take a yoga class two times a week (plus I do a little bit everyday on my own).

Pickert: I’m doing a self-designed circuit workout at home three or four times a week. It includes kettle bells, free weights, core exercises and cardio. I also play tennis at least once a week and ride my bike. Soon, I will be adding in hiking.

Fitness resolutions for 2012: Robinson: I want to lose 15 pounds this year. I’ve lost three in January, but not having the usual holiday meals and treats around has made that pretty easy.

Upcoming fitness goals: Robinson: I would like to run a 10K in March and a half-marathon in November.

Pickert: We are going to Colorado this summer, and I want to be able to do some challenging hikes. All the exercising I’m doing right now is about being ready to meet that challenge.

Greatest athletic achievement: Robinson: I finished the White Rock Marathon in 2009.

Pickert: In 2010, I walked in the Susan G. Komen 3-Day. I didn’t want to be the one to slow my team down, so I really dedicated myself to the training. Having a team that was counting on me and establishing a fitness routine that helped achieve my goal was really an amazing experience. The 3-Day itself felt like a celebration of all the training and work that went into being able to accomplish it.

Workout: mornings or evenings?  Pickert: Mornings, without exception. If I don’t work out before 8 a.m. it’s not going to happen.

Ways you stay fit or workout together: Robinson: We play tennis and like to go kayaking and hiking. We don’t work out much together because of our schedules and our preferences. But we definitely support each other and celebrate our accomplishments together.

Pickert: We play tennis, and we enjoy taking long walks together. But more than that, we encourage each other to take whatever time necessary to do the things we enjoy doing to keep fit. Kara loves to run and do yoga, and I would much rather play basketball or go bike riding.

How do you motivate yourself to workout? Pickert: I set a significant goal, and I know that exercising is going to enable me to achieve that goal. Also, I have to have other people involved. When I trained for the 3-Day, my friend met me at the corner down the street every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 a.m. to walk with me. Knowing that she was going to be there, and that she was depending on me to be there just as much I was depending on her, made getting up at 5:30 a.m. super easy.

And words of advice for people trying to work fitness into their life? Robinson: I totally empathize with people who believe they are too busy to workout. I felt that way in 2010, which was the most stressful year ever. I didn’t workout because, with everything that was going on, I couldn’t justify spending an hour at the gym or going for a run. I wish now that I hadn’t bought in to this way of thinking, and instead just made even a little bit of time to go for a walk or do something physical. But now I know that exercise is a gift you give yourself, and you’re the last person you should be stingy with.

How does your partner motivate you to workout?  Robinson: Witnessing all the preparation and dedication she put into [the 60-mile 3-Day] and seeing her finish all three days of the event and seeing how happy she was snapped me out of my 2010 fitness funk.

Pickert: Kara sets a great example. In 2009, she ran a marathon, and I so admired her dedication and determination each and every day as she trained for the race. Seeing her cross the finish line and the joy she had in her accomplishment made me want to achieve more for myself in regard to fitness. It made me realize I need a significant goal to keep myself motivated.

Favorite healthy/low-cal snack? Pickert: Pickles totally satisfy that salty, crunchy craving.

Favorite song or play list for workout? Robinson: These three wind up on just about any playlist I make: Lupe Fiasco, the Roots and Mary J. Blige.

Pickert: Barbara Streisand singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is my anthem. That song makes me want to conquer the world. Silly? Perhaps. But true nonetheless. (Kara is going to tell you her favorite singer to work out to is Lupe Fiasco, but the truth is, it’s Liza Minnelli.)

If you could become an Olympian in any sport, what would it be and why?  Robinson: Fencing. The outfits are fantastic, and there is no ball to catch or throw.

Which celebrity or athlete’s physique would you like to have and why? Robinson: She’s not really a celebrity, but I’d love to have a physique like Michelle Obama. Every time I see her in a sleeveless dress, it makes me want to do more push-ups.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens