“Request Concert”: Unorthodox Play Meant for Select Audiences

The protagonist meditating in a dark room.

“Request Concert,” which saw a total of only four showings over the course of a week, marks the latest in the theater department’s ventures into more unconventional works. The play was adapted from a 1971 work by German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz by its director, assistant professor Amy Guerin — who in 2018 directed “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” — and was shown in the blackbox theater located in the theater annex of the Early Learning Center.

The experimental aspect of the play comes from its format: it takes place in one act, set in one location, and with only one character. In the whole hour the play lasts, there is no dialogue. The audience simply watches the unnamed protagonist, played by lecturer Karen Baker, returning to her Manhattan studio apartment to go about her evening.

Until the very end, there is nothing that could realistically be called a plot, a conflict, a character arc, or anything most audiences will be attempting to pick out to understand the story they are being told. The woman returns home, presumably from a day of work, and goes about her routine. This involves making sure her phone is charging, doing a few minutes of yoga, and listening to the day’s news  — which is in fact actual current news — while she prepares a light dinner and a drink. Her routine is unremarkable. She listens to music. She scrolls through social media on her iPad. She double checks the lock on her door before reading a novel in bed. And then, once the lights have dimmed and she’s tossed and turned for several minutes, she gets up again. She pours herself a glass of wine, letting it run out over the table. Then she pops a full bottle of pills, one by one, as she drinks it. The lights cut out, and the play concludes.Insert poetry. Use special spacing formats. Or quote song lyrics.Until the very end, there is nothing that could realistically be called a plot, a conflict, a character arc, or anything most audiences will be attempting to pick out to understand the story they are being told. The woman returns home, presumably from a day of work, and goes about her routine. This involves making sure her phone is charging, doing a few minutes of yoga, and listening to the day’s news  — which is in fact actual current news — while she prepares a light dinner and a drink. Her routine is unremarkable. She listens to music. She scrolls through social media on her iPad. She double checks the lock on her door before reading a novel in bed. And then, once the lights have dimmed and she’s tossed and turned for several minutes, she gets up again. She pours herself a glass of wine, letting it run out over the table. Then she pops a full bottle of pills, one by one, as she drinks it. The lights cut out, and the play concludes.

Karen Baker’s character goes about her evening. Credit: Jeff White

While the play is simple and unambitious in its locations, the technical aspect of the set and sound design are still worth noting. Two walls of the small blackbox theater space were taken up to transform completely into the well furnished and decorated apartment of its unnamed protagonist. It comes complete the necessities: a kitchen, dining area, bathroom, living room, bed, and countless signs that this space is actually being lived in: magazines, phone chargers, and other small details flesh the set out and make it feel real. It’s minimalistic, but in an elegantly believable way that complements the carefully controlled personality of the woman. In the small space of the blackbox theater, with only a few feet separating a member of the audience from the set, it can feel as if they are actually inside this apartment.

One of the more impressive design choices was the inclusion of a fake wall with windows, and with a light placed on the outside to create the effect of a streetlamp. Even when the curtains are thrown back, the fake brick walls outside create a convincing building exterior when viewed at an angle. Throughout the play, a loop of muted sound effects of outside noise such as car horns and, interestingly, a helicopter, make the audience fully aware of the busy outside world around the story being portrayed.

The lead role is clearly demanding, requiring an actor to remain onstage as the sole focus of audience attention for the full duration of the play, but Baker handles it competently. Her performance is intentionally dynamic in order to hold the audience’s attention; she never stays in one place for more than a minute or two and frequently walks across the set to retrieve props or dim the lights to ensure there is some action on stage. Although it’s strictly a physical performance, punctuated by a few small vocalizations such as laughs and sighs, there is a discernible emotion. The character’s final moments bring with it a powerful delivery in facial expressions and body language alone.

Although the ending is impactful, the full effect of the play does not come while it is being performed. Everything that happens until the closing minutes of the play is completely, mind-numbingly mundane. Which is, of course, the point. In her director’s note, Guerin claims that “the bulk of our ‘lifeness’ is pretty boring. We are pretty boring. How we deal with this reality/existential dread is the question that Kroetz is asking us. How we answer that question is something each of us must answer for ourselves.” It isn’t until the play is over, until the audience member goes home to their own small set that it really hits. Everyone inevitably spends some time going through an uninteresting routine in silence, and after “Request Concert” it’s hard not to be painfully aware of it.

There are other possible themes suggested to the audience over the course of the story: specifically, those of mental health and society. While some may come away feeling that the ending is too sudden, too disconnected from the rest of the play, this mirrors how mental health issues can present in the real world.

While not much is directly revealed about the protagonist, some details are obvious. She seems financially successful, judging by her clothing and the fact that she has an attractive apartment in Manhattan. One particularly interesting moment occurs as she listens to the news but doesn’t seem to have any emotional engagement, regarding it as an entertaining backdrop against the comfortable life she’s made for herself. She’s an individual who does everything right: she exercises,  has a good job, and keeps a nice home. She keeps herself informed about current events and eats well. She drinks and indulges, but only in healthy moderation. She does everything society could expect from her, and yet she’s not happy. Suggesting that the problem is not with her, but with society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *