By the time I hung up my coat in the Denizen Theatre this past Sunday, nearly every seat was already taken for the opening weekend and world premiere of “Adaptive Radiation.”
A bearded gentleman—I later learned to be a SUNY New Paltz alumn named Brett Owen, plopped himself down next to me, our elbows inevitably touching in the tight yet cozy confinements of the black box theatre.
“I love that the people are right there,” said the beaming actress Fredi Bernstein who played “Adaptive Radiation’s” Olivia. “You can feel every one’s energy in the audience.”
I scribbled down some questions to ask after the show and gazed at the steady flow of people entering the theatre, occasionally curling back my legs for other audience members to shuffle by.
I watched Ben Williamson and Harry Lipstein hug, kiss, and shake hands with people filing in. A woman wearing a Denizen T-shirt handed an elderly man a bag of candy with a note attached, embraced him and thanked him for being a “Denizen Insider.”
“Denizen is really doing something special,” said actress Genevieve Simon, who played Mel. “The environment and the space is very welcoming, it’s treating what we do with respect.”
Finally, the lights dimmed to black and the audience clapped with anticipation.
Smack— Once the play began, we were immediately confronted with conflict as we witnessed an argument between two roommates Olivia and Mel.
“Mel is a person at the beginning of the play who is really unhappy, but is very scared of admitting just how dissatisfied she is with the life she has and who she has become. She is so scared to admit it that she can’t change,” Simon said.
“It’s really cool to play a character who, because of the magic in the play, takes the step in saying ‘hey you know what, I’m not going to do what everyone is telling me I’m supposed to do, I’m going to do what I need.”
A sly smile crept on Simon’s face— “On another level, it is really cool to find a female character that gets such an empowering storyline. At the end she is taking care of herself, she doesn’t need anyone else.”
Paralyzed with fear of the unknown, Olivia is far from stable— from worrying about paying the bills of her city apartment, to fearing her future standing at her internship.
“I just turned 30-years-old so there was a lot of anxiety around that…figuring out what I want to do and where I am at at this age.That all feels very present in Olivia’s life. It was nice to play a character that helped me explore those feelings.”
“Adaptive Radiation” tells a story of four millennials—Mel, Olivia, Robert and Steve—brought together and catapulted into whimsical chaos by a strange, other-worldly spec of light, according to the Playwrights’ Center.
“It raises the question, do we turn into animals, but also what is that spec? You have it, I have it, we all have it…this enlightenment that’s part of our lives,” said Denizen Theatre Co-Artistic Director Ben Williamson.
“Sometimes we get programmed by all these other variables that can get really confusing, especially when your brain is still literally developing.”
Time is fuzzy. Words are just falling out. Magic or no magic. Close the goddamn windows, Olivia. These are just a few motifs that consistently make an appearance throughout “Adaptive Radiation,” leaving a subtle taste of déjà vu in everyone’s mouth each time.
The intelligent yet snappy writing, combined with the play’s fun visual magic tricks completely captivated the audience.
When the play concluded we were all left vibrating in our seats, attempting to precisely process the play’s messages—the play’s magic. I turned to Brett Owen, my bearded companion, and asked him what he thought of the play.
“I have a dreamer side of me being an actor, so I am familiar with feeling like you have to put your dreams off in order to just earn money and survive. Survival mode, there’s things it does to you…you build up protective walls around yourself and it’s hard to then be open to what is around you.”
“I feel like this generation is lost sometimes,” he added.
I looked around and realized we were the only two people left in the theatre. How long had we been talking? Time is fuzzy.
I could feel the Denizen’s honest and vulnerable powers worked on me while speaking with Tepper Saffren, the actor who played Steve, the “trust fund kid turned social injustice warrior.”
What was supposed to be a standard interview, turned into an introspective conversation with a new friend.
Saffren and his fiancé opened their apartment door for me to inquire about a particular scene where Steve makes a dramatic physical transformation.
“There is a big culture right now of these big hipster people who are preaching no judgment, love and compassion. Yet what they are not doing is letting femininity inside of them. Where toxic masculinity comes from is that we are so hell bent on,” —Saffren grunts and pounds his fists on his chest in a mocking fashion— “making sure we are men and making sure people know we are masculine!”
“In that scene, Steve is finally getting the medicine he needs…that is accepting his femininity and accepting that he has all of it inside of him, not just the part that he is trying to represent because he has been so traumatized through his time in the orphanage.”
The level of honesty in this play would be impossible to convey and maintain if it weren’t for the welcoming, pure-hearted environment at New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre.
“There’s a way in which people diminish artists as just people playing or having a hobby. But this place,” Simon points at the Denizen Theatre, “makes you feel like when you walk in, this is your job, this is your career, and it’s valid.”
I met with Williamson to ask what he and his team hope for the Denizen Theatre to accomplish.
With empathetic eyes, looking not at me but into me, Williamson replied, “To come from a place of love, speak truth, create, inspire, challenge, provoke.”
“This is a beautiful place and I think that we as a company really value the work and bringing diverse theatre artists together. What we will accomplish? We don’t know. But if you come from a place of love, if you come from a place of creativity, if you come from,” —Williamson placed a gentle hand on my shoulder— “that ‘I’ve got your back and we can do this together’ mindset, I think we will all raise each other up and we will all find that little light inside of us.”