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In a twisted way, this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic year brought more to Ticket Knowlton's senior year thesis than it took away. Slated to direct the UNC School of the Arts' production of Neaptide by British feminist playwright Sarah Daniels, Knowlton lost the opportunity to interact with cast, crew, and design team in a normal theatre environment and to see the effect of their work on a live audience. But Knowlton (identifying as they/them/their) remained the first gender-nonconforming director to pilot a School of Drama show, and they weren't content to simply livestream the production or to simply record it as if it were a standard TV studio sitcom. The product that resulted from months of experimentation, adjustment, improvisation, and collaboration feels like a faithfully recorded theatrical production – with added sparks of cinematic up-closeness and video editing. And the polish from both the School of Drama cast and the video team, compounded by lighting and design that made me nostalgic for the edgy contemporary drama I would catch at various unexpected sites around London, was nothing short of astonishing. Every shot by Jeremiah McLamb and his JerFilm Productions comes through the traditional "fourth wall," but always from the perfect angle and distance.
Neaptide, the first play by a contemporary female playwright to be produced at the National Theatre back in 1986, is twisty enough on its own. Two lesbians will be seen in the faculty lounge that becomes the center of gravity for Daniels' dramatic action. Or is it three? They are so closeted during the Margaret Thatcher era in the UK. Bringing things to a head, two student lesbians are caught kissing in the girls' bathroom, and instead of discreetly agreeing to tone it down, both decide boldly to come out. This brewing scandal tugs at the sympathies of our heroine, Claire, on the rise as the best teacher at the school, while drawing a defensive and punishing reaction from Beatrice, the school principal who has just rewarded Claire's excellence with a promotion. Yet both Claire and Beatrice have good reasons not to champion these renegade students. Claire's ambivalence, with her career and custody of her daughter Poppy at stake, is the most compelling quandary.
So, for my American ears, the flabbiness and misdirection of Daniels' script turned out to be godsends. We began in a sanitorium with Claire's sister Val, harshly spotlit, alone on a hospital gurney. Not long afterwards, her Mom drops by – an earnest, meddling, judgmental, endlessly tedious and annoying Joyce in a bravura performance by Jane Clara Cooper. Imagine a whining Mary Tyler Moore on acid. When we flash back after this encounter, most of which I hardly understood, I presumed that our main focus would be on how dear Val wound up in this loony bin. Eventually, we do learn what Val has done to earn her hospital gown – but there's nothing close to profundity about why she's done it. Eddy Grace gets to give us an emotionally intense performance as Val, her mania at the hospital followed by scenes with her children and her husband, Colin, including the crackup.
Yet Val and Joyce, along with whatever the crux of their antipathy may have been, drift rather abruptly to the periphery after the opening sequence. By the time we began homing in on Val and her precious relationship with Poppy, I found that I was sufficiently oriented to navigate their British accents and to follow the main storylines almost effortlessly. During the initial hospital scene, I was loading up to pillory accent coach Robin Christian-McNair, but ultimately, I was quite amazed by her results. The banter in the faculty lounge – and the lesbian scandal – are even more intelligible than the familial grappling.
Contrasting with the pandemonium and crassness of Val's household (television! dry cereal!), Claire's home life is serenity, love, and cultural enrichment. Notwithstanding Joyce's backbiting intrusions, Daniels goes out of her way to show us that Claire is the worthiest of moms. Like the playwright, Claire is a bit of a propagandist, reading to dear Poppy the myth of Demeter and her daughters as a bedtime story. Persephone, the daughter who is abducted by Hades, is paralleled to Poppy, so her dad, Lawrence, must surely be the King of the Underworld. I wasn't put off by the not-so-subtle indoctrination of this bedtime ritual as much as I was by its sweet tedium, for it wastes much of Yasmin Pascall's time on stage as Claire, obliging her to establish herself in lullaby mode as being cuddly and wholesome. Pascall's talent comes out far more powerfully when she faces the big conflicts in Claire's life, at home and at school, struggling with ambivalence as a parent and teacher. We also see a frazzled Pascall – and some fairly insane slapstick – when Claire tries to cope with Val’s incorrigible brood at the breakfast table.
Since Daniels hardly assigns two dimensions for Parker Robertson to work with as Lawrence, let alone three, we're more likely to invest ourselves with the drama at school and an edgier gender struggle that Claire is more hesitant in coming to terms with. Making it easier was Noa Beckham-Chasnoff as Beatrice, the school principal, whose sex and sexuality have taught her the Gospel of expedience. It grows more shocking and heinous to find that her punitive attitude toward Diane and Terri, the teen lesbians, has somehow been hardened by Bea's settled ways of dealing with her own sexuality. Perhaps conceived as belonging to the same generation, Beckham-Chasnoff shows us a Beatrice who is as tightly wound as Joyce, but primmer. Bea's growth and development seem more natural during the arc of her action, so we can feel more affection for her towards the end.
Knowlton and the JerFilm Productions film team mostly show us over-the-shoulder views of Lawrence, dooming whatever attempts Robertson may have made to humanize him. Amar Bains finds the richest terrain among the men's roles, infusing Colin with spurts of anxiety, fear, frustration, powerlessness, and despair as he tries to cope with Val's volatility. The other boys and men on stage are rather comical, though Lawrence Davis brings a chummy sleaziness to Roger, the English teacher who lusts after Claire, a portrayal that sets him apart. Daniels isn't at all sentimental about her lesbian teens, allowing N'yomi Stewart as Diane and Belle Le as Terri to act more like punkish, rambunctious pals than lovers. Olivia Daponde is sweet innocence and devotion as Poppy, though perhaps not as malleable and fragile as her elders think. In an inadvertently comical moment, Daponde is barely small enough for Pascall to carry offstage at the end of their tender lullaby scene. Pascall manages that lift as heroically as the other demands of her role.
By the way, if you're questioning that a mother would name her child Ticket, she didn't. They did, just recently. And it's okay if you call them Lil Ticky. I'm sticking with Ticket, even if they go paperless.
It should be noted that UNCSA School of Drama was recently ranked No. 4 in the world by the Hollywood Reporter. See the article here.