Magic Time!: ‘The Fall’ at Studio Theatre

These gifted playmakers were not just eye-witnesses to a story; they incited it. They were players who propelled it, and they made it theirs.

There is so much to be blown away by in The Fall, the powerful and thrilling performance piece devised and performed by seven South African students. Their majestic musicality, their propulsive movement, and their righteous verve evoke a revolution and a revelation. Three years ago, these performers were all part of an uprising at the University of Capetown, a student protest against colonialism as symbolized by a statue on their campus of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. They wanted the statue to come down and they got it done. They tell the story in The Fall, a theatrical experience that cries out to be seen, heard, and felt.

Click to read my colleague Bob Ashby’s insightful review of this outstanding show.

The Fall depicts student activism with vivid authenticity and visceral authority. The story it tells expands into a sweeping indictment of all residual colonialism along with inequalities of sexism, racism, and classism. But nothing about The Fall is abstract; every dance, song, and spoken-word scene has the personal conviction and commitment as must have been lived in the moment of the movement. These gifted playmakers were not just eye-witnesses to a story; they incited it. They were players who propelled it, and they made it theirs.

The cast of ‘The Fall.’ Photo by Oscar O’Ryan.

All of which makes The Fall—especially for anyone with a radical past or present—a vivid enactment of what goes really down inside activist organizing. The exterior objective may be—as it was with these students—to disrupt, defy, and make demands by putting bodies on the line. But in the interior—in meetings thrashing out tactics and hashing out frictions—unit cohesion and trust can prove so fracturable things fall apart and the center cannot hold.

The Fall dramatizes these dynamics of discord with wrenching verisimilitude. At one point, the students debate calling for a general strike and shutdown of the university, a tactic to pressure the administration to do the right thing. But one of their group is slated to take a critical medical exam at the same time. Not taking the test will end his shot at a career. The agony in the scene is palpable as the group struggles to determine what the right thing to do is for themselves.

The cast of ‘The Fall.’ Photo by Oscar O’Ryan.

Even more polarizing and gripping to watch is the scene about midway through when the female-identified characters call out the male-identified characters on their sexism. (There are three of each plus one who identifies as nonbinary.) The confrontation is so raw and explosive one wonders how these actors can possibly get along offstage and on the road, given that the characters they play seem pretty much themselves.  For anyone who has ever been in a political group riven by such rage—women trying to get through to men about how their oppression replicates the very oppression the group is fighting against, and defensive men fighting back instead of listening—that scene rings excruciatingly true.

After that seemingly irreconcilable rift there comes a dramatic resolution that is as theatrical as it inspiring. A new issue arises, having to do with the cost of tuition, something that affects everyone regardless of gender. Urgently the activists respond by mobilizing anew, in the cause of fee-free education, which effectively closes the play’s chapter on sexism by changing the subject. One might think The Fall just copped out. But one would be mistaken. For now is when the phenomenal vocal and choreographic chops of the cast play their most important role in the show.

By now we know that the characters we see on stage were lived by the actors who portray them. And by now we know that the actors are capable of playing conflict among themselves with such believability it seems to really rip them apart. So when next they resume their rhythmically synced dancing and their gorgeously harmonic singing—at once as themselves and as their characters—they communicate a profound cohesion that surpasses the strife we have seen. And that inspiriting accord becomes The Fall‘s indelible gift.

To receive it, just see it.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Fall performed in fall 2018 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington DC.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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