I saw JOHN AND JEN at HATTheatre on Friday, a sung-through story of a brother and sister’s relationship (first act) and then a mother and son’s relationship (second act). I keep seeing shows on closing weekends so it’s essentially too late to tell you to run out and see them. But suffice it to say, it’s was a fine production featuring two of the best musical theater actors in town, Georgia Rogers Farmer and Chris Hester.
In theater parlance, JOHN AND JEN is called a “two-hander,” a shorthand way of saying that the cast
is just two actors. Two-handers are very popular in theater and not just because the compact cast keeps costs low. Some of the best shows in Richmond in recent years have been two-handers. Cadence’s THE MOUNTAINTOP and the TheatreLAB/Yes! And Entertainment co-production of VENUS IN FUR leap to mind. TheatreLAB’s current season focuses exclusively on two-handers with THE LAST FIVE YEARS electrifying the Basement stage last fall and MOTH prepping to open next month.
The variety that you can squeeze into the two-hander format is incredible. In two weeks, Firehouse will open what is perhaps the most unique two-hander I’ve heard of. AN OAK TREE will feature two actors but only one has rehearsed the script beforehand. Landon Nagel will star as The Hypnotist for every performance but a different
actor -- chosen from a list that includes Richmond A-listers like Audra Honaker, Alan Sader and Foster Solomon -- will play the character of “Father.” It’s a meta-theatrical concept that intensifies an already incredible, devastating story.
Why are two-handers so powerful? I think it’s because most of the most important interactions in life happen within the secretive confines of a one-on-one relationship. The most commonly explored of these relationships are sexual partnerships -- lovers of opposite gender or same, committed to each other or not -- because it’s hard to explain exactly what happens between two people who are intimate with each other.
There is something specifically powerful in dramatizing these kinds of interactions, staging conflicts and convergences that can’t adequately be described. Revealing them on stage lends the two-hander a special kind of power: it makes the audience a voyeur to something private, showing them something that you really shouldn’t be allowed to see. These are the kinds of interactions that are also most ripe for interpretation: he-said and she-said and both can be right while also both being wrong.
As explained in the New York Times a few years back, “two-handers are fundamentally about the problem of intimacy, the primal human need to connect with another, and the sorrows and satisfactions arising from this drive.”
Ah, yes: the sorrows. We’ve been hearing a lot about the kinds of sorrows involved in one-on-one relationships since the #MeToo movement took off last fall. What has allowed people in power -- mostly men -- to get away with all sorts of misconduct has been the deniability inherent in the IRL two-hander. How do we know who to believe when there was usually only two people in the room and their stories are so dramatically different?
In the months of #MeToo since, it has only been through the preponderance of evidence and repeated accounts of similar behavior that the veil has been lifted on what has been going on. It’s been surprising to some, traumatizing to others, cathartic to many who have finally been heard.
Theater often gets its power from the intimacy and intensity of an interpersonal relationship. Today at Firehouse, our theater will give back, in a sense, by allowing those who have lived through sexual harassment or abuse to tell their #MeToo story in a supportive environment, in an effort to continue the conversation about sexual misconduct.
We need to change the culture that too often does not believe or turns a deaf ear to those whose lives have been affected, sometimes devastated, by this kind of harassment and abuse. The stories related tonight are part of furthering that effort.
Two-handers are reflections of the intensity of intimate relationships. That intensity can be inspiring and uplifting, complicated and difficult, abusive and destructive. Maybe someday the only place we’ll hear about the abusive ones is on stage instead of in the news.
Just as a PS, the panel at the event will include some real A-listers as well. They include:
Carol Olson, a survivor, advocate, counselor / art therapist, local talk host and media producer. She hosts and produces radio shows like The V Word and Richmond Recovers; is currently the President of the Virginia Center for Public Press; and is the President of the Virginia Art Therapy Association.
Fatima M. Smith who is Associate Director at The VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, is responsible for planning for the annual women’s leadership conference and the Minority Political Leadership Institute, and was an advocate for survivors of sexual assault at VCU.
Lakshmi Challa who is the managing attorney of the Challa Law Group and serves as senior counsel to LeClairRyan’s Richmond, Virginia office. In addition to practicing immigration law exclusively for over twenty years, she has partnered with the Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) and University of Richmond in developing an immigration clinic that assists victims of domestic violence.
And Linda Tissiere who is CEO of YWCA Richmond, is one of the region’s oldest nonprofits at the forefront of creating positive social change through the elimination of racism and the empowerment of women.
Come hear these impressive women speak their minds and answer your questions!