During the March 18 production of Kevin Kerr’s Unity (1918), two of the cast members came down with, as director Kerr called it, “a bit of dramatic irony.” The play is set in the prairie town of Unity, as The Great War is coming to an end and the “Spanish Flu” is claiming lives around the world. In the spirit of the play, the cast mustered together, with both the director (Kerr) and assistant director (Melissa Taylor) taking to the stage.
It is not everyday that you get to see a play directed by the writer. It is even rarer still when the writer/director must also fill in as actor, but that was the case on March 18. Both Marisa Nielsen, (cast in the part of Rose) and Sean Dyer (cast in the part of Stan/Fred) fell ill and Taylor and Kerr filled in for them respectively. Although some lines were read off book by these two, it did not cloud up the overall performance. The cast still managed to pull its audience to their feet when the curtain fell.
This was one of the better Phoenix productions I’ve seen. The acting was at the level I expected for a University production, with a notable performance by Logan Mitev (playing the role of Hart.) The live music, performed by Francis Melling, was altogether haunting and beautiful, although unfortunately on many occasions the music cut out awkwardly in between scenes.
“I’ve seen it [Unity (1918)] directed by lots of different people over the years but not by me,” said Kerr during an interview in the week before Unity started. The production was held on a thrust stage, a stage that juts into the auditorium with the audience on three sides. Kerr had never directed on a thrust stage before and he had never seen Unity performed on one either. “I had to approach every scene differently because it was a different shape of space to play with,” said Kerr. Although I was not a fan of the thrust stage, what was placed on the stage elevated the piece to new heights.
Given that death was so prominent in this piece, so much so it became a character itself, coffins littered the stage and were used as all-purpose furniture objects. It was executed so creatively and in so many ways, all of which helped contribute lingering character of death. Given that a character made these coffins, shavings covered the entire stage. Kerr described it as, “gorgeous and so simple and ends up being really textually beautiful,” and I couldn’t agree more. The shavings got pushed around and swept aside with feet, hands, and coffins all throughout the piece leaving a trail or imprint of the lives of these characters on the stage. This seemingly simple addition added depth and individuality to the performance.
An altogether moving piece, Unity (1918) was artistic and beautiful. It showcased a key ingredient of the student production, and highlighted the poetic center of this piece: Unity.