by Lisa Steiner
If you’re like me and didn’t really know what the Theatrix theatre is all about, I encourage you to check out their most recent production, Smokefall. Theatrix is theatre acted, directed, and produced by students at UNL, with occasional guest stars, like this show. Smokefall, written by Noah Haidle and directed by Ethan Greenlee, is a dream-like thought piece about family, life, and love, where some actors play multiple characters, eras weave in and out of each other, and the story asks (in multiple ways), “What is life really all about?”
The story focuses on one family in particular, through four generations. Violet (Arin Turnage) is pregnant with twins; her husband, Daniel (Brett Gaffney), is faced with malaise; their daughter, Beauty (Claire McClannan) is mute and eats anything but food; and Violet’s dad, The Colonel (John Burkhart), has Alzheimer’s. Their story is accompanied by Footnote (Daniel Darter), who gives little tidbits and factoids along the way.
One of the first things I noticed upon taking my seat was the floor. It is mostly black, with wooden planks painted underneath the various furniture sets. This attention to detail was continued throughout the set and overall design. I enjoyed the constant day-to-day tasks that the characters completed throughout the scenes, whether it be looking through the newspaper or fiddling with the TV remote. The thrust stage was used wisely, except for a few times when I couldn’t see the action on the floor, hidden behind furniture or a fellow audience member.
The costumes did not remind me of any particular era, which at first, frankly, confused me. But as the play went on, I could see this was likely due to the aforementioned era weaving. So ultimately, it worked, because the time setting doesn’t really matter in this world. Most notable were what I’m going to call the placenta balloons in the second act (when the twins are in utero), which accompanied a rather jaunty, yet pensive, vaudeville routine. Inspired lighting and sound design, complete with echoes of Violet giving birth, rounded out this zoomed-in perspective of the womb.
With tough material to present with the danger of sounding like a stuffy philosophy class, conversations and contemplations transpired naturally. Turnage displayed an impressive array of emotions, with Violet dealing with the stresses of unexpected family challenges. Darter was utterly amusing during his time as Fetus Two, and had great physicality all around. He and his partner in crime as Fetus One, Gaffney, played well off of each other during their crisis of whether or not they were ready for their “invitation to the mystery of things.” Not being able to speak did not hold back McClannan, who portrayed Beauty’s sentiments effectively without words. Skipping generations with his characters without skipping a beat was Burkhart, who had multiple switches in a row in the third act. Speaking of switches, I’m also going to give props to the quick change completed by Turnage while she was, at the same time, running from one side of the theater to the other for her next entrance a few moments later.
This piece of theatre is definitely imaginative and outside of the box. That said, it seems like Theatrix would be a perfect company to take on such a challenge. They did a wonderful undertaking of depicting what I would guess were broad, open-ended suggestions from the playwright for how things “should” be. The audience was attentive and appreciative with their laughs and applause, and I’m sure starting to question some of their own philosophies about life, so the play definitely did its job.
If you go: Smokefall plays at the Temple Building at 12th & R Streets the rest of this weekend, October 18th and 19th at 7:30pm, and October 20th at 2:00pm. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door one hour prior to the performance.
Lisa Steiner is a long-time lover of theater and the arts, who enjoys performing, music directing, and filling the role of patron. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University, where she also was a staff writer, page designer, and production editor for The Reveille newspaper. During the day, Lisa is a case manager for the Department of Health and Human Services. Through this great position, she is able to combine her strengths of working with people and completing paperwork. Lisa also has a cat named Sienna.
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