Expecting what’s unexpected: Reviewing ‘Tailspin’ and ‘Festival of Devised Works’

Zach Barr, Columnist

Usually, when reviewing a show, the audience has some semblance of what to expect — whether it’s a drama, a comedy, a musical or something in between. But sometimes, shows give the audience no hints as to what they should expect, as was the case with last weekend’s “Tailspin” and “Festival of Devised Works.” With shows like these, individual reactions are going to vary, and your experience will depend on what you come in expecting.

“Tailspin,” a special event hosted by Arts Alliance in Annie May Swift Hall, was one of two things: either a cabaret of songs with a weak narrative or a jukebox-like theatrical event with some weak song choices. I don’t know which. The show was billed as a “musical revue” (a fairly nebulous term) but was put on by a theater board and mostly features people involved in theater.

But, I will say, perhaps not labeling “Tailspin” is the best way to talk about it. I was inclined initially to criticize it for focusing more on vocal performances rather than the small semblances of story that were introduced, but then there were a few consecutive songs (“Killer Instinct” and the powerful trio of “Poison and Wine,” “A Case of You” and “Love is Blindness”) that really began to sell me on the idea that “Tailspin” was more theatrical than musical. The acting in most songs after that was better, and Communication freshman Jacob Kogan’s reactions as the central “devil” did seem to tie things together.

But, ultimately, not giving “Tailspin” a label makes it hard for me to criticize it because I didn’t know what I should have expected. I’ll say this then: If you had gone expecting a cabaret of songs by nice singers, it provides but has a random narrative attached. If you had gone for the theatrics, there are some songs that fall flat, but it’s entertaining to watch. There doesn’t seem to be a central message, but, again, I don’t think it’s trying to have one. Overall, it’s a nice idea and makes for a nice evening.

For theater with a message, I would transition to Spectrum’s “Festival of Devised Works,” but even that connection begins to break down. Devised theater (theater that starts with no script) often forms from a message about society or life, whatever the ensemble wants to say. But the three offerings of the festival in Shanley Pavilion last weekend seemed to run the entire — well, spectrum — of devised theater. Directed by Communication sophomore Nikki Rosengren, “(comes true.)” didn’t seem to have any clear message upfront but instead told a generally entertaining and legitimately frightening story of dream-watching. On the far other end, “Hello, My Name Is ______.,” directed by Communication freshman Maggie Monahan, was nothing but message, sacrificing any storyline for repeated examples, which all drove home the message but were not particularly engaging.

Interestingly, “The Story of You,” directed by Communication sophomore Justin Shannin, hit dead center with well-rounded characters and a message that is present but up to interpretation. For what it’s worth, I liked “The Story of You” the most because of that balance. I never felt it was lacking message, but it did build to a satisfactory conclusion (rather than Monahan’s, which seemed to build to nothing). As for “(comes true.),” though certainly confusing and plot-holed, it was entertaining and contained some of the best performances of the night.

But, ultimately, what you get out of these shows depends on what you come in expecting. For story, Rosengren’s play was certainly something original. For message, Monahan’s piece presented one purely and simply. And Shannin and his ensemble were happy to provide a show that seemed to nicely blend the two.

Email: zacharybarr2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @AdmiralZachBarr