Monday, September 2, 2019

"The Flick"

The Flick
Annie Baker

Justin Howard & Chris Ginesi
Entering the Ashby Stage setting, it is at first confusing where to find the ticketed seat.  Mirroring the regular seating area is another set of seat rows, which after a second look, are clearly those of a small movie theatre.  Looking further, there are the curtained walls with movie-house sconces, windows on the upper back wall to a projector room, lighted exit doors, and of course on the floor among the red seats, lots of scattered popcorn.  Soon it is movie-house dark; lights flicker and reflect on the back wall as a movie is projected somewhere behind where we sit; and surround sound envelops us with a movie’s dramatic score.

And then the sounds and flickers cease; harsh florescent lights come on; and into the movie theatre in front of us come two guys with dust mops and broom pans.  One says matter-of-factly, “We call this the walk through;” the other shrugs, frozen like a statue; and the first starts to clean up popcorn.  For the next several minutes, no more dialog ... Just mopping.  And with that, welcome to the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Annie Baker’s The Flick, now is a highly unusual, completely fascinating, and patience-demanding production at Shotgun Players.

Justin Howard
That first few minutes of mostly silence on the stage except for the umph- umph-swish of dust mops is just a precursor of a sizable proportion of the next three hours (plus a fifteen minute intermission).  Much of what is said during Annie Baker’s slice-of-life play are the things that are never spoken aloud.  Long stares into space or at a fellow worker sweeping, pregnant pauses after an abrupt question by one as an answer is slow to come from the other, and elongated expressions that speak volumes without ever speaking words are as important – if not more so – than any of the brilliant dialogue that the playwright has in fact included in her play about three movie theatre employees who go to work as soon as the rest of us clear out of the theatre at a movie’s end.

Twenty-year old Avery – an African American, Clark University student currently taking a break from school – is the novice sweeper, so inexperienced that when handed a dust mop, he takes what seems an eternity to figure out where to put his hands properly on its handle.  Watching with skeptical and somewhat unbelieving eye is Sam, a thirty-five-year old white guy and veteran sweeper of three years at this small, run-down theatre that has yet to convert from projected movie reels to digital – something that now seems inevitable since all the big production companies are announcing they will only make new movies in digital formats.  To Avery who admits movies “they’re like my life,” replacing projection for digital is “immoral.”  For Sam, who cares as long as there is still popcorn to be sold and floors to be swept?

The action of Annie Baker’s script is mostly only in dry and wet mopping as we continue to catch glimpses of movies ending and the two guys with trash can and mops enter and exit.  But what we slowly begin to see is that life happens in these harshly lit minutes between darkened arenas and Hollywood hits.  Bit by bit, Sam (Chris Ginesi) and Avery (Justin Howard) slip out information about their lives outside their jobs; about their passions (or lack thereof); about things that haunt them, piss them off, leave them confused.  Friendship is slow to come but somehow it seems to slip in unawares by either – or at least never admitted by either.  But laughter and smiles and even a high five start to become a part of their interaction; and eventually they and we begin to see deeper, darker, but very real parts of who they may be as people beyond their mopping and cleaning.

Justin Howard & Ari Rampy
But there is also a third employee, Rose, who was once a fellow sweeper but was promoted over the more senior Sam to be the projectionist.  Rose is often seen only on the other side of the small windows where the movie’s flickers originate; but when she does saunter in to the below with the boys, the whole climate suddenly becomes more electric and unpredictable.  Rose (Ari Rampy) in her ripped black jeans and hoodie moves about like she is on the dance floor of some late-night club, talking in a kind of cool jive and definitely creating both tension and excitement on especially Sam’s part, who claims she is probably lesbian but clearly has other hopes for himself.

Ari Rampy, Chris Ginesi & Justin Howard
As days elapse and cleaning sessions mount up, this cast of three grabs our undivided attention as we wait for the next round of mop-ups and alternations between a few spoken words, a couple new revelations, and a lot more of the telling silences and stares.  While on the one hand nothing overly dramatic and life-changing occurs, topics emerge in conversations touching on personal quirks and fears, past tragedies and current struggles, flirts with death and questions about survival.  And even though at times life for these three seems to move at a snail’s pace, their passing minutes together become rich, riveting moments for us as an audience to understand that for every person, every life, and every occupation, living day-to-day is an epic waiting to be told.

A recurring metaphor used by the playwright is the popular game of movie fans, “six degrees of separation.”  Movie trivia king Avery accepts challenges by a thoroughly enthralled Sam to connect in six movies or less people like Michael J. Foxx and Brittany Spears.  Sam’s challenges and Avery’s oft-quick responses become an important bridge connecting the two.  What becomes more and more clear is that his game is easier to play connecting random others than the real life game of any two of this threesome finding ways for solid, permanent bonds. 

Jon Tracy directs with evident reverence and trust Annie Baker’s script with its pauses and silences designated along with spoken dialogue.  What is remarkable about his direction and the acting of the three principals is that all looks so natural, as if spontaneously happening in small, real-time snippets of their lives.  At times, I almost wondered if these three actors are actually in real life these three people snatched from some small, local movie house in Berkeley.  There is never any hint that they are in fact acting as they stand with silent looks blank, worried, sad, bored, intrigued, amused, angry, etc., etc.  It all looks too every day real.

Certainly the set design of Randy Wong-Westbrooke enables this sense of watching real scenes play out in an actual movie house.  Kurt Landisman’s lighting puts us inside the darkened theatre as a movie is playing somewhere on the screen behind us and then startles us with the jarring realities of red chairs worn, ceiling tiles stained from past leaks, and a floor full of patrons’ messes (those kernels and cups being some of the props designed by Devon Labelle).  Kris Barrera’s sound and video artistry brings in the final, necessary elements to make the movie sequences come to full life all around us while Nikki Anderson-Joy ensures the movie employees look the part and their ages/personalities through her costume designs.

The question that must be raised and the one possible criticism that is obvious is does The Flick actually need to be three hours in length to have the intended impact that Annie Baker and Jon Tracy hope to have.  Frankly, I am torn on that one.  Did the play seem long?  But of course.  Were there times, especially during the first half of the first act, when it seemed little-to-nothing was happening.  Well, yes.  But in the end, are those initial sequences needed in order to help us understand these three people and why their connections with each other are so difficult?  Well, probably so. 

So my advice is definitely do not miss the opportunity to see this outstanding production of The Flick.  It is a unique opportunity, one so masterfully directed and one where these three principal actors become people we might in fact meet in real life if we hang around next time the lights go up after watching a movie at a local theatre.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Flick continues in extended run through October 6, 2019 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Ben Kratz Studio

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