“Outrage” Interrogates History and Intelligence

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.

Photos by Allie Lee.

“It’s like a bomb exploded in the center of history and we’re stranded in the debris.” –Daniel Rivnine (Carson Young ’10)

Outrage, opening Friday, October 30th, winds a plot that spans through location and era, bringing together the great thinkers and arguers of the past and present. Along with welding this “explosion” of references together through mirrored scenes and unexpected parallels, Outrage hints at deeper and more complex themes, forcing the viewer to build unlikely connections. Ultimately, the points of intersection within the plot combine not to make a single theme but instead to make all themes. The viewer becomes the one who must decide what is worth fighting for and what must be left to die.

“What do we pick up and carry forward with us, and what do you leave aside, when everything that civilization has ever achieved is available to choose from?” asked Dustin Trabert ’10, the director of the show. “The work of modern public life is confronting what to take from the past and what not to.”

The play, written by Itamar Moses, is portrayed through a collection of scenes detailing the lives of Socrates, Bertolt Brecht, Menocchio, and a group of professors and staff members at a modern university. While the scenes range greatly in costume and thought to reflect shifting centuries, all characters are forced to fight similar battles to keep the world that they live in from falling apart. Although Trabert describes the “broad range on time periods” as the “greatest difficulty” in directing the play, each event layers upon the others in terms of plot to weave a net that captures the varying nuances of what may be called “martyrdom.”

While Outrage builds its foundation upon historical examples, the true themes of the script are embellished by the liberties that Moses took in twisting the factual to fit his own purposes. “Ironically, Outrage … is ultimately not faithful to the facts,” Trabert said. “One of the characters, Bertolt Brecht, at times comments on the play’s lack of regard for the facts of the stories of the other two earlier historical martyrs.” Much like an author uses figurative language to enhance the emotive nature of reality, Moses distorts reality to emphasize the reality that facts are lost. What matters, the script seems to assert, is what we carry from these events, be it factual or not.

The sprawling but uninformative sets echo this message by forcing the audience to use their own knowledge of past events to decide the context of a scene. By creating a stage strewn with tall ladders, suspended chalkboards, and unremarkable furniture, the sets are easily manipulated and allow the message of the play to be unconstrained by a single era.

Stage lighting also remains subtle throughout the play while still highlighting events. Smoke, for example, clouds the depths of the stage at one point as a professor and student stand on a platform in the foreground discussing their confusion over what makes a martyr. As the conversation moves away from academics, the smoke begins to seep onto the edges of the platform, finally engulfing the two as the lights darken to suggest a scene change.

The smoke also serves to remind the audience that the show is taking place within a theatre within modern times. The play’s separation from “real life” was also made clear several times throughout the show, for example when Laura (Jessie Cannizzaro ’12) refers to the smoke (and strobe lights) as theatrical techniques. By continually grounding the audience in the present time and place, Moses shows both the futility of trying to grasp at a dead past and the overarching impact of our intellectual predecessors.

Moses, who has written several plays in addition to Outrage, including The Four of Us and Bach at Leipzig, does not focus solely on the past in his script, though. Instead, Moses uses history as a mode through which to express modern concerns.

“Maybe the key strand in the play, the one that the most dramatic moments hinge upon, is the dynamic between academic or ideological principles and other, perhaps baser instincts, for sex, power, or self-preservation,” Trabert said. “While the play ultimately has a lot of respect for the more principled decisions, I think it also makes a strong case that we should feel sympathy those figures who don’t consistently live according to their own ideals – even if we don’t necessarily forgive them.”

In the play, many actors are given the difficult task of portraying a modern character as well as an ancient one. However, similarities in characters lead to an easier transition between roles, and sometimes even make the voices of two characters being acted out by the same person meld into a single thematic note.

“What was interesting was that the script really provides for these different historical parallels,” Cannizzaro said. “It was nice when we were rehearsing to find lines that matched up with your other character. It was almost easier in a sense because the characters were so paralleled even though it was such a wide span of history.”

Whether the portrayal of multiple characters in the show made preparing easier or more difficult for the actors, the strength of their craft is untouched by swift transitions from ancient Greece to a university office. I must admit that there were times during which the acting seemed hesitant; however, this can be quickly overlooked because it occurred rarely and was often interspersed with unquestionable (and probably un-learnable) talent. At points, the actors seem to delve into a textual awareness that goes beyond reality, to a point where the bodies on stage become not just marionettes of Moses, but living symbols. It is at these moments that the actors embrace the rich entwining fibers of the text and, by doing so, are able to not only make a “realistically” resonant piece, but a piece that enters the mind and forces engagement on behalf of the onlooker.

The piece will run Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8:00pm in LPAC’s Pearson-Hall Theatre. Although Outrage may appear to include characters that students will be unable to relate to, the show may actually be ideal for a campus setting.

“It really talks a lot about ideas that students have—and especially at a place like Swarthmore where we’re all trying to write papers and do things that hopefully change the world in some way,” Cannizzaro said. “It really speaks to [the] idea of how we can affect the world some day and how we can effect history and make our own impact on history—and if that’s even possible.”

Wes Willison ‘12 (graduate student #2) also commented on the performance and its relation to Swarthmore. “The idea of dressing up has a lot to say about our culture here,” Willison said. “There’s a lot of dressing up in this play … taking various identities and [showing] how they’re all really similar.”

In the end, Outrage reflects life at Swarthmore in the way that it discusses society’s use of knowledge. “I think we have a tendency to think here that knowledge is good for its own sake, inherently so. I’m for education, even higher education—although I’m pretty sure that a good one should make you unhappier rather than happier about your life,” Trabert said. “It is not enough to be smart—we must also be wise.”

(Photographs by Allie Lee; review by Nick Gettino.)

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