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Elephant Room's sophomore Fringe production, Salamander, builds on last year's Suicide Stories: Gallery of the Untold. This time, the company explores another timely issue — rape, and its roots in male privilege — in Lisa Villamil's ambitious ensemble drama.
The piece, directed with flair by Lauren M. Shover in Plays & Players' Skinner Studio, begins with a trigger warning and announcement that a counselor from Woman Organized Against Rape (WOAR) is available to assist. Set designer Annemarie Branco puts the action on the studio's seating risers, lining the walls with newspapers and posters that say, "We Are Human," "Support the Salamanders," and "Are You Infected?"
"Open Your Eyes, See the Truth, Change Everything"
Villamil's script, with its powerful motto and poetic direct-address narration, seems at first a lecture about sexual assault, teaching us about how women must take precautions to be "less targetable" by predatory men. However, it expands into an emotionally grounded, realistic, and well-crafted braid of stories.
A naive young man (Blake Alvey) celebrates his 24th birthday at a "gentlemen's club." There, a stripper (Natajia Sconiers) muses philosophically to the audience about her job.
Meanwhile, the man’s grandparents (Ginger Agnew and Christopher David Roché) bicker while preparing for a family celebration. Separately, a young woman (Zoe Nebraska Feldman) leaves a college party, promising her roommate (Sol Madariaga) she'll walk right home.
Their stories intersect explosively as a mysterious disease spreads.
The ensemble takes on many other roles while these stories connect, the action staged fluidly with just a few stools and props. The actors also augment Eric Baker's lighting with handheld flashlights, eerily illuminating themselves and each other.
Characters are defined quickly and clearly flowing from one to another in an instant. Madariaga, for example, plays the clueless roommate, a brusque detective, a harried prosecutor, and a glib TV talking head within moments of each other, with an incisive commitment to each.
The second act diverges with a science fiction twist, juxtaposing familiar police and courtroom action with that strange disease: it affects only women and eliminates their sexual identities.
This affliction makes women seemingly un-rape-able. But it's an evolutionary change that ends assault not by any progress or sense of responsibility from society's clueless, vicious men. Instead, women surrender vital parts of themselves.
Is Salamander telling us this drastic alteration is our only remedy for sexual assault? As the disease progresses, women can no longer taste or see color, and begin to fade away.
Can women only be protected by surrendering so much? Perhaps so. The many real cases that Salamander mirrors teach us society still blames the woman and excuses the man, with little hope for change.
Villamil's script, enhanced by Shover's resourceful staging and the actors' powerful performances, doesn't settle for easy answers. Questions like "Are you dangerous?" hang in the air, challenging old norms and the looming new reality. Salamander asks, can we — not only men and women but victims and justice workers, strippers and grandmothers, blithely complacent and deeply scarred — reach some level of understanding before biology takes over?
What, When, Where
Salamander. By Lisa Villamil, Lauren M. Shover directed. Elephant Room Productions. Through September 9, 2018, at the Plays & Players Theatre's Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
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