Theater of the gun

Theater of the gun
Paola Nogueras

As of the first week of November 2019, the murder rate in Philadelphia had claimed just over 300 lives, a 7% increase from last year and the highest number since 344 in 2007.

In response to these shocking statistics, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, following his November re-election, let the locals know he was on the case with an initiative to combat growing gun violence in the city. While the Mayor discussed the need for stronger gun laws starting at the federal then state level, Kenney also announced that he would step up the usual policing of high crime areas of the city, heighten the consequences of all criminal activity and target high-rate offenders. How all that jives with DA Larry Krasner’s seemingly opposite goals is a matter for another report.

Mayor Kenney isn’t the only person responding immediately to the onslaught of gun violence.

During a December where several local theaters put on fantastical, holiday-themed productions with several variations on the Dickens-penned “A Christmas Carol”, two local theaters are knee deep in starkly serious, searing one-woman showcases devoted to gun violence—both in the home and on the block.

While South Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile hosts playwright Martin Zimmerman’s coarse, yet lyrical “On the Exhale” through December 22, starring Suli Holum; Center City’s The Drake and Simpatico Theatre tackle playwright Lauren Gunderson’s darkly comic “Natural Shocks” starring Amanda Schoonover, also until December 22.

To say both productions feature two of Philadelphia’s most powerful actors would be an understatement. Schoonover is a Barrymore Award-winner for local theater excellence who just wrapped up a role in the all-Philly-filmed upcoming AMC series from Jason Segal, “Dispatches From Elsewhere.” Holum is a founding member of the inventive Pig Iron Theatre Co., and artistic director of The Work, an incubator space for new performance. She too has an Barrymore on her mantlepiece.

Beyond acing chops, it is the sharpness of the texts’ critique and the present day necessity for their being that makes these plays crucial—a form of reportage that cuts straight to the heart of current affairs.

Matt Pfeiffer, the Associate Artistic Director of Theatre Exile and the director of “On the Exhale,” is drawn to theater works “about action” that “ask very clear questions.”

As a one-woman show about a highly traumatic subject—the death of her child to gun violence is part of the narrative—Pfeiffer looks to navigate an actor’s psychological integrity while being mindful of where Holum’s character must spend her emotional capital without exploiting her or moralizing to a paying crowd.

“I’m trying to help her do something imaginable—portray the real experience of gun violence—without being torturous to the artist or the audience. You have to do this without sensationalizing. The playwright does, however, take the play to places the audience will not see coming.”

With that, “On the Exhale,” is “numbing, all about grief, and struggling for the answers,” stated the director, pointing particularly to one scene where the play’s sole character goes to shoot the gun that was actually used in the tragedy.

“There are plays that have been produced in the last several years that touch on gun violence. ‘Gloria’ by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins is one that is particularly vivid, abut violence in the workplace. Then again, Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is also violent. The perspective of ‘On the Exhale’  is that of a grieving mother, a survivor, but, where the character goes with its elements of revenge fantasy is what will prick up your ears.”

After mentioning that playwright Lauren Gunderson offered one principle author instruction in regard to “Natural Shocks” and portraying America’s obsessions with violence (there is one gun in the show and it should never be pointed at the audience), director Elise D’Avella claimed that her plays starts out blackly comical, but winds up with a hard realistic finish, while avoiding being preachy. “Someone who is OK with having guns in their house can come to this show and engage in the conversation without being worried about being attacked.”

Playing up the comic aspects of “Natural Shocks” and its 65 minute run time, D’Avella said you won’t know what hit you.

“The whole time that you’re going along with ‘Natural Shocks,’ you’ll think it is one thing, until you see and hear that it isn’t,” said the director. “It is written impeccably well, with an incredible twist, and with greater relevancy by the day. It engages with a lot of important conversations right now, such as domestic violence, gun violence and mass shootings.” D’Avella even confessed, quietly, that both she and her acting collaborator Schoonover both personally related to the ideas of domestic violence.

D’Avella stated that during “Natural Shock,” there are feelings of helplessness in regard to gun violence that touch on the very idea of what Mayor Kenney is going up against with his recent initiatives. “It will have you questioning what is and isn’t being done,” she claimed. “How much more normal will the events of shooting become?”

It is not lost on Pfeiffer that the local violent topicality of his show, “On the Exhale,” and Simpatico’s “Natural Shocks,” might not suit the Christmas season.

“Just in time for the holidays, right,” he said with a laugh of the merry and bright. “But gun violence is an important topic, and we do have audiences that don’t want to be inundated with comedies like ‘Elf’ or a ‘A Christmas Carol.’ To enjoy the light, you have to understand the dark. Now then, is  a perfect time to stage ‘On the Exhale’—at the end of the year, we think about the things we hold most dear, and this play explores losing those things and figuring out how to go on.”

Be sure to catch “On the Exhale” running at Theatre Exile until December 22, and “Natural Shocks,” running at The Simpatico Theater, The Theaters at The Drake through December 22.