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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The inland sea: Macalester Theatre Department

The Macalester Theatre Department will perform the U.S. premiere of Naomi Wallace’s play The Inland Sea over the next two weekends for the department’s fall production. Set in 1760s England, The Inland Sea tells the story of the social and political struggles between a small village and a landscape architect threatening to destroy the town.

“Thematically it’s really a play about power,” said Will French ‘13, who plays laborer Jayfort in the production. “It’s about who holds the power and how the power is being exerted over other people.”

“I think the production is challenging to watch and completely absorbing,” added Beth Cleary, Director of Macalester’s rendition of The Inland Sea and Chair of the Theatre Department. “There’s so much to see and listen to, and we’ve designed this theater within a theater that compels people to sit right in the action. And the action is ferocious. There’s violence here, there’s explicit sexual provocation, there’s class warfare, and it really needs to be said about this play that that’s what [Wallace] is working with.”

In order to understand this dynamic, cast members spent time learning to embrace 18th century England.

“The process has been slow, sure and steady since the beginning, and we’ve layered in the various ways [the cast has] had to prepare,” Cleary said. “The very first thing we did was work with a dialect coach because there are four different dialects on stage. We established research work next, and then I started working with relationships. We’re researching the heck out of this play. We have to, otherwise there’s just blather coming out of people’s mouths. There are things about England in that moment that we recognize. Our burden is to show the connection.”

Many of the actors understand the social conflicts highlighted in Wallace’s writing that Cleary sees as highly connected to modern-day issues.

“It’s set in a time where the disparities between a tiny minority of wealthy landowners and the vast majority of impoverished poor people mirrors the demographics that the Occupy movement is demonstrating today,” she said. “So it feels to me so contemporary as a set of enactments related to poverty and power and access. To me it feels utterly relevant to this moment, and I feel like we’re making a contribution.”

Cast members have found this connection as well. French, a black student himself, is using his role as a black character to bridge the gap between centuries.

“In one scene I tell two other actors, who are both white, to put on black polish,” French said. “Politically, that’s a very powerful move in terms of the black-white relationship in that time period. Wallace really shows that black face is ludicrous – it will be apparent that those actors look nothing like me.”

In Cleary’s experience, this is fitting to Wallace’s reputation.

“Wallace’s work is explicitly political, as it critiques many of the institutions that may seek to suppress human liberty,” she said. “But she is also concerned about the politics of the body, gender, race, and class, and those are ongoing complications for some students here. Not many other writers are doing that kind of work, so in that sense she’s very Macalester.”

Such controversy is not new to Macalester students.

“People definitely know that Macalester plays strive to be edgy or controversial,” French said. “So I won’t lie, I think this play will be shocking.”

Knowing this, Cleary expects a Macalester audience to be challenged by Wallace’s work.

“I expect them to be disturbed,” she said. “Her material is not easy, it’s provocative, and that’s partly because of what she asks actors to do on stage with each other. She’s never irresponsible or merely sensationalist about that, but you still have, or get, to watch material you may never have seen before on stage.”

The Inland Sea premiered worldwide in London in 2002, but Macalester’s rendition will mark the show’s U.S. opening. This is a milestone for both Wallace and Macalester’s small theatre department.

“I’m really excited about the premiere, but I don’t think other students know about it. It would be cool for that word to get out,” French said. “Not that we all hold hands and sing off of rooftops, but it would be nice for us all to celebrate and acknowledge this together. No matter what, people will always think ‘this is Macalester theatre, it’s just going to be politically, sexually, and racially charged.’ But they still come.”

Ultimately, Cleary’s hope as the show’s director is to instill in viewers the same kind of long-term impact that Wallace’s story has created for the cast that has spent all semester learning.

“None of this will lead up to a policy paper or a punctual novel or anything that lasts past Thanksgiving,” she said. “But this is the nature of this work, it’s evanescent and the doing is all. I think people question the value of something that doesn’t leave an object, something that has very few traces except in the memory. Playwrights, directors, people who work in production … hope that it’s more than just in the memory of cast members but that it’s a sense of possibility and action among audience members too. And that’s always the traffic zone of the arts.”

The performance will be showing in the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center in the Main Stage Theater at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday Nov. 11 and 12, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday Nov. 17–19 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13. The showing on the 13th will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Macalester Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance Lara Nielsen, Assistant Professor of English Neil Chudgar and Renu Cappelli ’96.

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