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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

the first time

I've long been an advocate of college theater. One of the reasons is that often you see work that local companies do not offer. And the college work is often of high quality.

Though not in the realm of "seldom produced theater" the recent musical productions of "Peter Pan" and "Spelling Bee" at Russell Sage College were as good as anything to be be found off-campus. Dramatically their recent war drama "A Piece of My Heart" was both well-done and seldom produced. Their next production will be "The Heiress" Feb. 23-27. When was the last time you heard of any local theater company doing "The Heiress"?

This week the theater department at SUNY-Albany is offering a show that I guarantee no area theater company will produce. It's titled "The First Time" and yes, it is a show in which four actors portray dozens of people who discuss how they lost their virginity.

First things first - this is not a prurient piece. There is a touch of vulgar language (it's hard to talk about sex without ever using the f-word) and there are what could be considered a couple of course situations here and there. However, this is serious look at people who have opened up on to discuss their personal experiences with their first sexual encounter.

I'm not sure why people want to share this with others, nor do I understand why Ken Davenport put some stories into a dramatic format. But the fact is the situations in the play are honest and true. But -as you might suspect - they are not always interesting. The sex act is after all the most natural of instincts and we all kind of know why people do it. So when we meet hormone driven people who "do it" for the first time it isn't exactly dramatic.

That said, when the situation is out of the ordinary it becomes touching. The most moving part of the evening is when two young women are taken without their consent. Another touching - actually creepy - moment is when a young man tells of his father buying him a prostitute and the father doing the same thing with another prostitute in the next bed.

These moments (and others) make you realize that a person's "first time" can either be a memorable experience or a damaging experience. The work has you realize the first time it is seldom casual, nor is it ever forgotten. The decision to do it or who to do it with is seldom made on a whim and most partners want the experience to be as sincere and loving as possible.

Because the play is so fragile the work done by the college cast is applaudable. The four performers Emily Billig, Robert Cervini, Dana Goodnight and Wes Johnson do good work in creating such a vast tapestry of characters. As important as the variety of characters they created, the performers always respected the dignity of the person they were representing.

Director Yvonne Perry does an excellent job in guiding their performances and keeping what is essentially a static play active. She uses the stage well keeping the performers in motion without forcing the movement. She frequently gives a solo story visual interest by adding a second silent character. It's a device that could be overused but Perry keeps it in check. The same is true about the use of humor in the presentation. There are more than a few very funny moments in the production, but rarely does the staging or the portrayals depreciate the person or the situation.

The play is only about 70-minutes in length but even this short time period seemed too long for the material which because of its limited topic is repetitive. Indeed, there is the feelings of voyeurism that cannot be be avoided as you listen to so many private experiences being shared with strangers.

To show how almost chaste is the material - instead of thinking about any of the acts of sex that were shared, my thoughts on the ride home were more about how little contemporary society cares about privacy. Not only was I wondering why people would share these intimate experiences on line, I wondered why audiences would be interested as to why people have sex for the first time - never mind how they do it.

I suppose my questions and quibbles bring me back to my original point. This kind of material is appropriate for college audiences. It might not be great drama, but it is great that theater can provoke discussion.


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