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World premiere of “Runner” satisfies audiences by unsettling them

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

March 6, 2009

Photo gallery for “Runner, the Play”.

EVIL RUN AMUCK: Debut performance of Cassie Seinuk’s “Runner” showcased such acting talents as (from left to right) Alex Goldman, Tony Rios, and Arielle Kaplan. The play focuses on the victims of an underground conspiracy yet hits uncomfortably close to home in its nuanced character portrayals.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

EVIL RUN AMUCK: Debut performance of Cassie Seinuk’s “Runner” showcased such acting talents as (from left to right) Alex Goldman, Tony Rios, and Arielle Kaplan. The play focuses on the victims of an underground conspiracy yet hits uncomfortably close to home in its nuanced character portrayals.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Somewhere between the mind control pills and the underground adolescent hit squad I grew concerned. As I sat watching the world premiere of Cassie Seinuk’s ’09 “Runner” in the Laurie Theater on Monday night, I thought perhaps I’d stumbled into the wrong production. After all, the subtitle of this show was “The Novel The Play,” but what I was witnessing looked more like “The Movie The Play.”

For all its aesthetic claims of guerilla street theater authenticity (if you saw a cryptic black and white flyer around campus you know what I’m talking about), at first glance “Runner” most closely resembled an action suspense film. There was the diabolical villain, the dewy-eyed hero caught in an evil plot, the damsel in distress, and even a whole crew of lovable sidekicks. The dialogue was sharp and direct, with urgency that matched the overall tone of the show.

And yet beyond these superficial comparisons were dramatic elements that gave the show an emotional depth lacking in plot-driven action stories. Rather than simply relishing in plot twists and adrenaline-fueled pursuits, Seinuk seems most interested in the psychological motivations of characters and the frightening ease with which normal people can find themselves crossing moral boundaries. The play forces us to confront traumatic character-shaping moments up close and without a safety net in situations that intentionally make us uncomfortable. To continue the cinematic analogy, the emphasis on the antagonist, Tristan’s, horrifying past was a bit reminiscent of the Joker’s formative past experiences as probed in “The Dark Knight.” It’s not enough, Ms. Seinuk seems to think, to portray good guys and bad guys without delving into the forces that render those categories meaningless.

“Runner,” directed by Vicki Schairer ’09, chronicles the story of Sean (Jordan Warsoff ’11), an abused teenager, who escapes from home without a plan only to fall victim to the grand designs of Tristan (Hank Lin ’11). The seemingly kind-hearted head of an underground home for boys, Tristan offers Sean the opportunity to work for him running ambiguous “missions” in exchange for free housing, food, and a nurturing environment. Travis (Alex Goldman ’10), the unspoken leader of the boys, looks on with horror as he watches the new recruit turned into a murderous automaton by the little white pills called IDLIS. Meanwhile, Sean falls for Axe (Arielle Kaplan ’10), a tough tomboy with a mysterious past who Tristan keeps locked away from the other recruits.

The most engaging performances fell on both sides of the emotional spectrum, including Tony Rios ’11 as the absurd, foppish Sacha, and Hank Lin as the domineering, authoritarian Tristan. The former served the indispensable function of comedic relief, yet his interpretation expressed such tender, boyish pathos that one couldn’t help but root for him. On the other hand, Lin seemed to have been born to play the dictatorial Tristan, which he embodied as much in his swaggering motions as his bombastic vocal delivery.

Unfortunately, I felt that Jordan Warsoff as the protagonist did not entirely commit to his role as the conflicted yet painfully innocent Sean. His reactions felt too rehearsed and flat in moments of high tension, and his delivery tended toward demonstrative displays rather than the subtle shifts the role demanded. Arielle Kaplan seemed most in touch with her character, Axe, at the beginning of the play in when her strangely feminized machismo provided for an interesting dynamic between her and the other runners. Later in the play when her character was greatly defined by her romantic relationships, however, she failed to flesh out the complexities of those interactions.

The stage consisted on the tiered levels in the Laurie Theater that served surprisingly well to suggest intersecting planes of reality despite the relative dearth of props, costumes and scenery. A number of flyers were posted in the background covered with “graffiti” markings, which might not have done much to suggest setting but effectively captured the gritty feel of the production. And yet the most economical and brilliant feature of the production design was the lighting, which simply consisted of clamp lights attached to railings around the set. These were manipulated to evoke intensely stark scenes, especially helping to amplify Tristan’s larger-than-life presence and to suggest the runners’ dark, shadowy layer.

The biggest accomplishments of the play were its thought-provoking dilemmas. By presenting characters as fully formed human beings, Seinuk strives to reveal the difficulties of using our built-in mental constructions to identify characters. So perhaps when I identified Runner’s characters as cinematic stereotypes I was just like Sean inadvertently steps into Tristan’s trap. By luring us into a seemingly familiar genre only to tear apart our expectations, “Runner” exposes the paradoxes that surface when the drives of the human psyche take us into decidedly inhuman places.

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