That Time I Got Punk’d by Suffolk Theater
Running from November 14-17, “Fab! Or Whatever,” directed by theater department stalwart Wes Savick, took over the Modern Theater and left audiences filtering out of the production with, undoubtedly, a myriad of emotions.
For one lone person, like me, to try and capture exactly what those emotions were would be a criminal combination of assumption and generalization; there’s no knowing what some people might have thought of such an experimental production.
Therefore, I can really only reliably give you my take of the whole…thing. And that’s really the only way I can describe it. “Fab” was a thing unlike any other thing I had ever seen. A thing that, if you fell into the director’s emotional trap like I did, would render you speechless and very confused as to what was fiction and what was reality after its conclusion.
The play masquerades as a modern remake of Luigi Pirandello’s “Each in His Own Way,” focusing on celebrity culture and our obsession with seemingly larger-than-life personalities. The first two acts revolve around interactions between a couple of famous actors (played by Raphael Roy and Stephen Cheuka), a philosophical socialite (Brian Bernhard), and the mega-starlet that everyone is talking about (played by Laurie Riihimaki).
Fab will partially be remembered for its unorthodox stage techniques. Savick goes far out of the box to create something ultimately that is, regardless of how you feel about it, visually unique. One example includes employing the use of a live camera during the performance, which fed into two monitors located at either end of the stage, and one large projection screen in the back. This played into the pop culture theme very effectively, and produced some cool effects that certainly warranted noting.
The most predominant diversion from the norm, however, came in between both the first and second acts. Savick included talkbacks, hosted by dramaturg Marina Silva and assistant director Andew Pinto, during each intermission. Normally, these occur after the play is over, and there is only one of them.
Additionally, talkbacks don’t normally include passive aggressive jabs at the performance by a former member of the theater department. Nor do they include off-putting and uncomfortable interjections by a friend of a scorned student actress who was kicked out of the play. There were completely off-topic and unapologetically rude things being yelled out, putting me at great unease and leaving me wondering what was happening, and why it was happening.
I was actually in the front row, directly next to the girl screaming about how her friend got screwed over and how the people in the department were all awful. The audience, and myself, were growing increasingly uncomfortable with what seemed to be a flammable situation behind the scenes exploding into an actual outburst during the performance.
The second act went on and finished, opening up talkback number two. Once again, the same student who was calling out the play for being “pretentious” and nonsensical spoke up, picking up right where the last talkback left off. More students spoke up, calling out the play and the director and the actors.
Finally, the train wreck crescendo of interruptions happened. The student actress who was kicked out of the play came storming into the theater, screaming “This play is over!” as she took the stage and started yelling at Savick to explain how he could be so cruel to her.
Nobody appeared to know what to do. I was absolutely beside myself. All I could do was stare and see what was happening, all the while wondering, “Is this really happening?”
Savick called all the actors out on stage, solemnly stated that there would be no performance of the third act due to the interruption, and told the audience to give the cast (who all looked dejected to a point of devastation) a round of applause.
And that was it. People started to slowly leave their seats, completely baffled as to what had just happened. My only emotions at this point were of complete befuddlement and rage. Frankly, I wanted my fucking money back.
And it was all staged.
As I type this now, and looking back on it, it is so glaringly obvious that the entire scene was all part of the production. The talkbacks, all the rude comments and, of course, the wildly unexpected intrusion and outburst were all calculated and rehearsed parts of the show. I played into the theatrical trap perfectly, and my reaction was exactly what Savick was trying to entice.
However it wasn’t simply gullibility on my part.
I had been getting influenced for days before seeing the production; unbeknownst to me. The cast, many of whom I am friends with, had been feeding me false stories about serious tension forming between the cast and the girl who would eventually storm into the theater for her fictional rampage. After hearing the stories, seeing it happen in front of me made my brain immediately connect the dots (despite them being fictionalized dots, mind you!) that it was culminating into a serious “the shit’s going down” kind of moment.
I had also heard murmurings that the kid from the department who supposedly had transferred was being incredibly unsavory towards the cast and crew, and therefore when he started spewing passive aggressive negativity during the talkback (wearing an Emerson t-shirt no less), my immediate and sole interpretation was that he was burning his bridges with everyone here and was trying to sabotage their last performance. To my pre-conceived brain, nothing else made sense.
My mother and younger sister also attended the performance that day, sitting in a totally different section. They were texting me during the talkbacks asking if the whole thing was staged. My only reaction to them was, “NO! IT ISN’T! YOU DON’T KNOW THE BACK STORY!” However, since they didn’t have the false stories influencing them like I did, they were skeptical of it from the start.
Ultimately, standing in the lobby after the show, I was trying to convince them that the whole thing was real right until I saw Mr. Emerson t-shirt walking out with his arms around two of the actresses, all of them smiling. Even still, my brain would not let go of something I perceived to be completely authentic.
I went up to him and said something along the lines of “You just had to make this about you today didn’t you?” He laughed and said, “Ethan! I was in the show!”
I looked over at my girlfriend (who was also in the show, and the primary reason I was upset at the performance being “ruined”), and instead of being torn apart that one of her last performances at Suffolk was just trampled by one of the most bizarre occurrences in our lives, she was smiling too; ear to ear, actually.
It all clicked right then. I don’t know if any of you have ever felt that sinking, burning feeling in your stomach like you just got caught doing something illegal, or just received bad news about something you care about. The feeling I had right then wasn’t the same as that, but it must be related to it. It felt as though my brain and my heart got whiplashed, even though I was standing still. There’s really no way to put into words the feeling of being so certain of something, only to be proven once and for all that you were dead wrong.
I went into writing this not intending to hide the fact that I’m friends with a good number of the people involved in the production and performing of Fab. As a friend and a fan of student theater, I enjoy watching Suffolk productions without worrying about being an objective critic, because I’m not a critic. This isn’t a critical analysis of the performance, rather an honest testament of how effective its strange and undeniably different ending was; especially so when you’ve been personally influenced by the cast and crew that knew exactly how to twist your perception to fall into the trap.
I can honestly say I had never been through an ordeal like that before. It was the theatrical equivalent to getting Punk’d, and looking back now, it was really quite wonderfully done.