The performers of Thought Plane Theatre are returning participants after winning the Cincy Fringe Founder’s Pick in 2013. They have a background in dealing with what’s known as magical realism, and Prefer Not To Say is what they call research-through-performance. That sums up their “happenings” very well, as their staged mini-shows create informal spaces and an atmosphere of leisure. This performance at the Coffee Emporium is a standout for the Fringe, thought provoking in how it prompts the audience to reconsider biases about gender, identity and labels in general, all through a parsing-out process.
Prefer Not To Say is two young women, Candidates 1 and 2, and their attempts to fulfill the role of Sarah. At the beginning of the opening night performance it was decided by audience consensus that Candidate 2 would be the interviewee, and this was done on a projected screen on the wall. Candidate 1, as the interviewer, helped “Sarah” formulate her identity through quantitative research and quantitative logic. The audience gets incorporated into this journey, as the two investigate aspects of personality hoping to figure out the divide between an individual’s outward life and inner self.
The two-woman show is a delight to take part in, as it’s almost unavoidable that you won’t somehow be asked a question or even brought onstage. The stage is bare, with the performers wearing all black, blank templates for the audience to project onto their preconceived notions. There’s also a surprising amount of physical humor, as the newly forming Sarah uses a human mirror to learn about herself and later has four individuals come up to communicate character traits through shapes. It’s all very Brechtian in how it draws attention to its own artifice, but also the social construct that is everyday life.
It’s telling that they’re women and that the application process engages with and slyly deconstructs expectations about body image, age, class and the institution of marriage. There’s much emphasis on physical icons of femininity such as handbags. As Sarah slowly has what William Wordsworth said of poetry, a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” she learns to break away from the spreadsheet philosophies of her interviewer and explodes into a kind of collective consciousness, emphasizing that labels are only a start and not an end when it comes to truly knowing a person.
The real beauty of the show is not knowing how much is improvised and how often the audience is manipulated towards certain material. It’s easy enough to imagine the actresses switching roles and everything turning out completely different. That’s the kind of spontaneity that can only be captured through human collaboration.
With an M.A. in English from Xavier University, Bart Bishop has been teaching composition for six years. He’s edited two published novels and loves ranting about movies and comic books. This is his third year of reviewing the Cincinnati Fringe Festival.