Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Jessie Bear’s ’09 senior playwriting thesis, “Pop Out,” will be premiering on Friday night in the Frear Ensemble Theater. The play examines the differences between men and women in today’s society. The production layers conflict through a blend of naturalistic dialogue and moments of deep introspection. The play strikes a delicate balance between the intimate conception of character by playwright and actor.
Sasha Shahidi ’09, plays Jenny, a successful obstetrician who is quite literally haunted by her guilt, embodied in various personas by Jane Abell ’11. While Jenny struggles to define and claim responsibility for her conception of womanhood she encounters other characters who puzzle out similar concerns. Dolly (Sara Lipshutz ‘10) is Jenny’s patient and a young college student attempting to define herself both through and in spite of her body.
As Abell explains, “The play is very much about a woman’s role, reproduction and the way women’s lives are dictated by the ability to reproduce… and whether this is dictated by patriarchy of a more biological, survival of the fittest [scheme].”
Double and triple casting is used to great effect in the performance. Isa St. Clair ‘10 is double cast both as Dolly’s best friend, who is intrigued by the liberation of women by avoiding any concern of reproduction, and Jenny’s co-worker, Eleanor, a fertility specialist. Judy Browngoehl ‘09 is double cast as a young, pregnant woman, single and frustrated by her position, and as an equally frustrated middle aged woman whose attempts with in vitro fertilization have failed.
Ben Hattem ’12, the shows only male, is triple cast as Jenny’s husband, superior in the hospital, and Dolly’s boyfriend. Hattem, St. Clair, and Browngoehl each rise to the challenge of deciphering distinct and believable portrayals of very different characters, earnest and often deeply insecure.
In an interview with Bear, she explained that the play’s double and triple casting was an idea of Lisa Jo Epstein, guest artist and director of “Pop Out,” and among the many possibilities that she was delighted to see developed from her script.
Doubles and inversions are further explored through the beautiful set by Simon Harding ’99. Bear recalled her first look at the set design: “The set is gorgeous. It’s not a neutral set… I had this moment of realization that I never would have thought to design this but it’s perfect.”
Bear also gratefully credits Dan Perelstein ’09, sound designer, who developed a score of sounds, musical moments, and eerily placed moments of dialogue in a manner that achieved Bear’s intent of “evoking emotion without melodrama.”
For Bear, who has been working on the play since last semester with Dramaturgy Professor Jim Magruder, the process has taught her a great deal. “I discovered a lot about myself as a writer. I’m ruthless with my revisions.” The process of developing and fine-tuning characters and personalities is enhanced both by her experience as an actor and her efforts working with the actors. She added a new scene to the script two weeks ago.
Bear praised the actors for their reception of the script and their hard work in understanding and internalizing their characters. “They are good people,” she said. “They are so patient.” The actors in turn have appreciated working with the playwright. As Abell observed when considering the challenges of portraying her character, who existed primarily as the antithesis of Jenny’s, “One of the most exciting things about the project was working with someone who was interested in the actor’s input… It was wonderful having [Bear] to go to.”
As Bear acknowledges, the play has been influenced by various playwrights including the “urgency” of Caryl Churchill, the blending of real and supernatural of Tony Kushner, and the realism of Diana Son. Bear’s script shines through the production for its movement and tension, each scene developing some form of confrontation between characters at times passively and at times quite aggressively, though ultimately each character is really gearing up to confront him or her own self.
This powerful chain of confrontation owes much to Bear’s own familiarity with acting and the development of character. “I used to see the play I would write as a playwright and the play I would write as an actor as two very different plays. I set out to write the play I would write as a playwright and I wrote the play I would write as an actor.” Bear reflected. “I would want to play any of these characters.”
“Pop Up” will be performed in the Frear Ensemble Theater on Friday, November 14 and Saturday, November 15 at 8pm. There will also be a matinee performance on Sunday, November, 16 at 3pm.