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Playwright-director-actor John Rosenberg's HellaFresh Theater's return to Kensington's Papermill Theater resulted in two quick productions, October's The Low Cost Mules and last weekend's And Then One Feels Great Anxiety. Both are intriguingly ambiguous, darkly comedic, and worthwhile for those seeking something Fringy outside of September.
Jenna Kuerzi ably performs this new 65-minute solo piece. She's distinguished herself in everything from Shakespeare and musical comedies to notorious late-night productions by On the Rocks. In Anxiety, she plays Dinah, an actress defecting to East Germany in 1987.
This seems a strange thing to do, only two years before the Berlin Wall falls, but she has her reasons. She explains them behind a piece of scratched plexiglass — which she assumes is a two-way mirror — in an austere border-crossing office.
Kuerzi makes the monologue active, despite sitting onstage before the house opens and never standing until the end. She constantly faces the audience, though appearing to only see her own reflection.
In that reflection, she sees a young woman whose bright red hair looks big, long, and wild, with a topknot. She wears a big scarf and a winter denim coat over grungy clothes. Her cubicle walls create an echo effect on the large empty stage.
"People tell me things and I get it," she reassures the unseen bureaucrats who will decide her fate, "unless I don't."
She offers to write a statement and read it in support of "The Republic of the German Democratic Republic," her garbled name for what was once East Germany. "All I ask is a car, a driver, and a theater to perform anti-American plays in."
Kuerzi can't help but find the funny moments in Dinah's meandering efforts to convince the East Germans to adopt her. She's hazy about history but tries to be complimentary: "I don't know if Nazis were East or West Germany," she explains, "but I know they invented crystal meth."
Perhaps a little chemically altered herself, Dinah tries to describe a Disney film about escaping from the East which leads to a humorous digression about Jiminy Cricket. She's a twitchy character, always scratching, always touching her face and hair distractedly. Maybe she hasn't slept for days.
Catch that train
About 30 minutes in, she finally mentions the notorious 1984 Andrew Lloyd Webber rock musical Starlight Express, performed by actors on roller skates playing trains. Don't laugh: it's the eighth-longest running musical in London West End history and Germany's most successful musical.
Dinah toured the U.S. and Europe with the show but was drawn to "antiauthoritarian and not sober" James. Has he defected too? Her rant becomes more disjointed as she opines about Ginger Rogers and the old "she did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels" line, as well as "motherfucker" Lucille Ball and "fucking piece of shit" David Bowie.
When she asks, "Am I to keep going or am I to stop?" no one answers, so she takes matters into her own hands in a sudden, surprising, unsatisfying ending. A logical or predictable conclusion would feel false, but perhaps there's something more to reveal that would justify our investment.
Kuerzi's ability to hold our attention and remain completely committed complements Rosenberg's hyperrealistic dialogue and quirky, difficult-to-define characters. Let's hope they team up again soon, and for more than two performances.
What, When, Where
And Then One Feels Great Anxiety. Written and directed by John Rosenberg. Hella Fresh Theater. November 24-25, 2018, at the Papermill, 2825 Ormes Street, Philadelphia. (480) 341-9557 or hellafreshtheater.com.
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