Second Stage’s fiercely anticipated, plein-air production of “Wesleyan vs. Amherst” opened on Andrus Field this past weekend. What makes this play so compelling is its pervasive physicality, which is simple but philosophical. The characters, members of a bifurcated collective, all seem to be aware of the fact that they are tiny, inconsequential beings living fleeting lives; some are fine with this knowledge, while others are mystified, fascinated, or devastated.
Rather than character, the meat and potatoes of typical Second Stage productions, “Wesleyan vs. Amherst” submerges itself in a ruthless commitment to action. Easily the most ambitious Second Stage project since “Shoot the Duke,” the student body has embraced the play with near-ubiquity. The Saturday matinee drew an unprecedented contingent of alumni and parents.
A small-college play at heart, “Wesleyan vs. Amherst” does not quail in the face of big themes: homoerotic obsession, negation of self, identity and conformity, violence and submission, and humans reduced to numbers. Performed in the round, the actors were constricted to a white rectangular grid painted onto the grass, with abstract pronged/phallic structures at each end.
The action centered on the fraught exchange of a single object: a misshapen pigskin vessel that characters alternately
cradled like a small child or hurled like a live explosive. This dichotomy of violence and tenderness, a clear comment on social media in a post-oedipal society, prompted enthusiastic audience investment in the plight of the characters, most of whom were dressed in identical red, white, and black attire, with bulky shoulderpads and helmets. The line seemed blurred between the
actors and the raucous audience.
I would attempt to chronologize the events of the play, but this would defeat the sensual experience of the theatergoer. The director, who also acted in the play — dressed in black slacks and a white-and-black striped button- down — actually encouraged people to keep on their cell phones, cameras, or video cameras, which made way for a flurry of pictorial and video documentations of the performance, now available on YouTube. The internet does wonders for entertainment.
If there was one negative thing that could be said about the performance, it would be that it was terribly inaccessible. Not until halfway through the third act could I truly suspend myself, and even then, I still felt lost in the hubbub of everything. The
director, whose name I don’t have — I was unable to attain a playbill — seems to lack a sense of, or appreciation for, tone. Though it is an essential thing to pave the way for new, innovative, and experimental works such as “Wesleyan vs. Amherst,” the one-dimensionality of this play made me feel, at times, as though I were watching a sports match. The director manages traffic effectively, but the play’s scattered structure and lack of a strong focus on its central character deprive it of forward momentum.
Last year, “Shoot the Duke” taught us what “injury” means for the individual. This year, “Wesleyan vs. Amherst” teaches what “defeat” means for the collective.