Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Spinning into Butter"

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"Spinning into Butter"

by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Lesley Chapman

Lighting Design by Rosie Geier
Costume Design by Mary Hurd
Technical Administrator Doc Madison
Scene Painter Gino Ng
Properties Master Alicia Gregoire
Assistant Properties Master Danielle Cannata

Susan Daniels (Dean of Students).........Korinne T. Hertz
Ross Collins (Art History Professor)........David Rabinow
Catherine Kenney (Dean).......................Lida McGirr
Burton Strauss (Chair of Humanities..........Fred Robbins
Mr. Meyers (Chief of Security)........Anthony Dangerfield
Patrick Chibas..............................Carlos Folgar
Greg Sullivan...............................Ron Rittinger

Tonight will be the final performance of The Theatre Cooperative's production of "Spinning into Butter" and so I will take this opportunity to write not a review, but a sort of essay. If you plan to see this engrossingly honest and excellently performed play, wait till tomorrow to read further because I will reveal here one surprise no reviewer should mention. (I say read it "tomorrow" because, as most reviewers have insisted --- I among them --- you will at final bows begin churning your own thoughts about the show, and if you see it with someone will talk about it far into the night.)

"Spinning into Butter is a brave, honestly soul-searching, very personal play. Playwright Rebecca Gilman, Director Lesley Chapman, and Korinne T. Hertz who plays the central character bring to the play, perhaps even unconsciously, an awareness of women's sensitivities. And it is Hertz' character's --- Sarah Daniels' --- play. She appears in, sometimes begins every scene but one, has a huge soul-searching monologue in Act II, and is the voice of reason (and, doubtless, of the author) often crying unheard in the maelstrom. She is Dean of Students --- a mothering role --- beginning her second year in her second college at maybe thirty, still new and lonely in a small Vermont town and a small, ingrown faculty. (It could have been "Belmont College, Belmont, Vermont" that drove George & Martha bats!)

Since the action whirls around and bounces off her, the fact that she is a woman doing a stereotypical man's job is important. Why else would Gilman begin her play and Sarah's semester with last year's faculty-lover Ross Collins (David Rabinow) going back to his home-from-sebatical mistress with the "can't we still be friends?" line. This sets Sarah adrift and alone, with Ross and the other two faculty members comfortably experienced, old, tenured hands.

Fred Robbins plays Burton Strauss, the stuffy Charman of Humanities,and Lida McGirr Catherine Kenney, a crafty, turf-protecting Dean. These (plus Ross, an Art History Professor) form a team, with Sarah's Dean of Students, trying to deal with a major campus crisis --- cruelly, violently racist hate-notes taped to the door of one of the school's few "Students of Color".

It's important here to remark that the entire team is lily-white, though the crisis is about Black racism. And it's been a criticism of the play that the recipient of those notes (and a stone through his window), often by his own choice, never appears on stage. But that is because this is not a play about Black oppression, Black pride, Black resentment nor Black endurance. It is wholly and unremittingly focused on automatic, thoughtless, all-pervasive White prejudice. All those White tigers spinning about "Little Black Sambo" cannot help but act out of their own unwitting assumptions of superiority --- and only one of them even takes the time to realize and admit it.

But before Gilman gets to Sarah's unremitting mining of her own soul in Act II, she gives two examples of her trying to do her Dean of Students job. First it's with an "off-White" student preferring not to be cubby-holed as Puerto Rican or Latino --- but perfectly in line for a $12,000 scholarship earmarked for "a minority student". Seeing "Nyorican" as a category the scholarship committee wouldn't understand, she talks him into compromise. Carlos Folger, who plays this Patrick Chibas, etches a portrait of hurt youthful pride in three confrontations: first suspiciously self-protective, then frightened the offerred scholarship will negate student aid, finally contemptuously vindictive because "you never even saw Me at all, did you?" He thinks he merely fills Sarah's quota of "minorities" here in mostly-White Vermont, and transfers angrily to NYU where he will feel at home.

Sarah tries to explain the sincerity of her motives, but can only apologize for what, suddenly, she realizes is true. She never saw him at all.The play is, after all, about unwitting prejudice and its consequences.

Greg Sullivan, played by Ron Rittinger, is a young, White conniver coming in after the crisis starts with an idea: a Conference on Tolerance. Sarah facillitates, sniping later that "I thought its purpose was to get you into law school," but --- like a lot of things early in this play, that dumb, selfish idea shifts, turns out the only real ray of hope in the entire play. Meeting in boycott of boring, faculty-dominated Forums on Racism, the Conference and the similarly boycotting Black Caucus actually begin talking to one another across the color-line, admitting their igorance and prejudice about one another To each other, face to face, for the first time. It ain't an answer, but it's a real beginning.

The action here is initiated and moved along by Anthony Dangerfield playing essentially the messenger-figure of Mr. Meyers, the campus cop, whose silences hide an impersonal contempt for most of the faculty's churnings, plus a final even, humanity-savvy assessment of Sarah's strengths and shortcomings. It is he who brings the surprise news that the victim wrote the notes taped to his own door himself, and its he and Sarah whose first impulse is not self-protection, but concern for that kid's welfare.

Is this "solution" to the mystery a cop-out? People who want to be spoon-fed the student's story and motives may say so, but I don't. Shy, and sensitive to the unwitting prejudices only Sarah admits to, prejudices coming from the majority-White students and faculty every day, he watched his hand --- like someone else's --- state in concrete words what no one else could see as the subtext underlining their every action and word. This was His attempt to make an honest dialogue begin. And perhaps, with that Conference on Tolerance, his attempt actually succeeded.

I've said nothing about direction or performances here, and I should. There is no Set Designer listed here, but the play is done essentially in-the-round, with audience in three separate areas ringing the playing space. The setting is always Sarah Daniels' office, with her desk in one corner, two chairs opposite; and there is a window --- a bleakly white-framed window where people may stare out on the snow-strewn Vermont campus. Inside this arena everyone serves as a torero pricking the Dean of Students to self-revelation. Fred Robbins is pompous self-importance personified, Lida McGirr imperious anger and contempt edged with slit-eyed guile, and David Rabinow a self-defending equivocator, while as the students Carlos Folgar and Ron Rittinger have their personal axes to grind, and Anthony Dangerfield is implacable as a silent critic doing his job. Yet Lesley Chapman as director makes certain that this is, always, an ensemble, with each person onstage listening and reacting as an involved individual. Nothing here is isolated star-turn.

But of course, Korinne Hertz' job is immense. She plays half the show in an ill-fitting blouse that in an odd way defines her character. Probably half or three-quarters of the lines are hers, and her every reaction has weight even when others ignore them. She meets every line, whether suggestion, realization, or speculation, with the direct honesty the role demands. And there's that monologue, spoken to a concerned, incredulous, caring David Rabinow. It's his line that tellingly ends that scene: Sarah has admitted to feeling, back in her first college job in Chicago, a justified disdain for the few loud, contemptuous, uncaring Black students too lazy to succeed --- but worse, to judging all of their color by these worst examples. She confesses to choosing a heirarchy of people she'd sit next to in the only empty seat on the Ell, with a White woman or man on top, and choosing at bottom to stand if the only seat-mate were a Black man. She realizes she moved to Vermont because it has no Black faces. Then, after hearing her out, Rabinow's scene-ending reaction is "On subways? I do that too."

I found myself, late in the play, wondering what the reaction might be if the sell-out crowd of forty faces in every seat were Black and not White. I find myself remembering how much better a show the cast of "The Laramie Project" gave out in Gloucester, with several months' hiatus, and wondering how this play might be revived, with this same cast, somewhere more people might see it. I find myself in awe of Lesley Chapman's socially conscious play-selection.
And I find myself envious of this company that will undoubtedly cap this evening with one hell of a cast-party!
Break a leg, gang.
Break a leg all!


"Spinning into Butter" (27 September- 9 October)
277 Broadway, SOMERVILLE, MA

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