Review: The Poetry Shift by Southwest Theatre Productions
by Michael Meigs
The Southwest Theatre Productions staging of Daniel Born's The Poetry Shift is just the sort of theatre for which I glean the theatre fields of Austin -- an new, intimate, small-cast drama peopled with distinctive characters and new faces. Kat Sparks did us all a service by setting up this showcase. I immediately regretted that I hadn't been to see it early in its four-week run at the Trinity Players black box on the fourth floor of First Austin.
Playwright Daniel Born is, like me, a graduate of the University of Kansas, and with an equally useless degree. He "found himself with a degree in Philosophy and no marketable skills." I sympathize. I once interviewed for a staff position at the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Economic Affairs; when I said I had a KU M.A. in International Theatre Studies, they practically laughed me out of the room. We've both had our revenge, however. Born became a playwright and resident dramatist in Kansas City; I eventually became a theatre fan and reviewer in Austin. Ha, ha, ha -- who has the last laugh now?
Sparks directs The Poetry Shift, tthe premiere of this play and the first production of Born's work outside his home region. It's situated in a low-rent business that assembles walkie-talkies, mostly for the Forest Service, and the six characters make up the factory's night shift. Lydon, the shift leader, must deal with an assortment of personalities. Not misfits, exactly, but employees well aware of the absurdity of their tasks (the sort of mindless assembly now often contracted in Asia, but the action is set in the 1990's, if I read the clues in the program and the sound design correctly). They constitute their own small community, and they take care of their own.
Sheri (Adriane Shown) is supposed to do the quality checks, but she's gone delusive after the death of her spouse. Lydon (Marty Soole), as manager, has conflicting duties. He owes the company quality performance by the team; he owes the team protection from the company. Added to the mix are Suzanne (Davina Works), a cute chick with a thing going with Lydon; Mark the stoner (Brandon Fox) whose uninhibited commentary reminds them and us of the emptiness of the mission; Jeannie (Estella Perez), focused and acerbic; and Roger (Michael Burnett), sour and ambitious. Each actor fully inhabits the character and the program bios reveal that each has devoted years to achieving that level of perofrmance.
Playwright Born's gift is his ability to craft dialogue between and among characters that makes them alive and distinctive in our imaginations. He uses lots of stichomythia (oops, my bad, blame the theatre degree -- that's a stylistic device characteristic of Greek drama, in which characters alternate lines of verse, giving impetus and bite to their exchanges). His sequence of often relatively short scenes gradually reveals characters' foibles and connections—for example, Lydon has a motorcycle and likes to be seen with cute Suzanne on the back of it.
And why the "poetry shift"? Lydon fancies himself a poet and has achieved at least one previous success by handing an employee a set of verses. Never mind that he calls them "pomes"; he believes his art has impact. That renders the closing of Act I especially dramatic, because the "pome" with which he tries to assist/console delusive Sheri is an awful mess. It achieves less than nothing; it enrages her.
Born's accumulation of scenes, as vivid as they are, falls somewhat short of a plot with a theme and an arc. The concept of the play is encapsulated in its contradictory title: The Poetry Shift. There's no poetry in shift work, merely the day to day (or night to night) associations of intelligent individuals doing work that's far beneath their abilities. You could, if you dared, extend that view to talented artists doing showcase work; they do The Poetry Shift because they love the art, they appreciate the text, and they hope their craft will be appreciated. In the plot that Born has put together, revelations are limited. Lydon's decision to abandon work is one; Suzanne's agreement to replace him (both at work and in her heart) is another.
That's the message that all too often, employment in the United States is unfulfilling but necessary to survive. It mirrors the view that all children are artists—until "the system" and brutal reality trains that out of them.
EXTRA -- an impressively designed and printed theatre program
February 10 - March 04, 2023
Black Box Theatre, 4th floor, First Baptist Church
901 Trinity Street
Austin, TX, 78701
February 10 - March 4, 2023
Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m.
at Trinity Street Players, 901 Trinity Street, 4th floor
TICKETS and show details on our website:https://www.swtproductions.com/
through Brown Paper Tickets:https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/5706140