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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Natural Shocks’ sensational via iPhone for Sturgeon Bay theater

Critic At Large

Third Avenue Playhouse

Jennifer Vosters in scene from iPhone production of “Natural Shocks” for Third Avenue Playhouse’s “PlayWorks 2021” series. (Screenshot)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – A one-woman play performed in a home basement with an iPhone: The outcome is exceptional theater – a strangely astounding product of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The material is from elite playwright Lauren Gunderson.

The performance is by an actor driven by purpose and adrenalin, Jennifer Vosters.

Direction is by a consummate person with a lightning-bolt idea, Michael Cotey.

The production of “Natural Shocks” stands alone in many ways.

A presentation was given – unleashed – Friday night as part of the Third Avenue Playhouse play reading series “PlayWorks 2021.”

Play readings normally are one-and-done events. They’re kind of loosey-goosey as actors do their thing reading scripts. They are moments in time that vanish into the vapors.

HOWEVER, this version of “Natural Shocks” that was delivered almost entirely in real time was recorded. Somehow, I would hope the recording could be available for further viewing because it is so remarkable.

The thing becomes harsh. The message of some theater is catalytic.

The premise of the story is Amanda has come to her basement because a tornado is approaching. She is recording the experience on her hand-held iPhone. Amanda lays out her concerns and feelings. And continues to do so into her life story.

In the real world, a big tornado swooshes through a brief frame of time, often with deadly results. In this theatrical setup, the tornado is a metaphor. Amanda is in the basement longer than true tornado time because her danger still is present. In that extended time, Lauren Gunderson explores the mind and soul of Amanda, with Jennifer Vosters sun-burst brilliant. When speaking “My mind is on fire,” Jennifer Vosters IS Amanda in persona and delivery.

In a theater, Amanda would be “up there,” some distance away on the stage. Online on a computer, Amanda is “right there,” a foot or two away with her face often filling the screen. Amanda is intense, and the viewer becomes intense-ified.

Amanda is an insurance agent. She loves the field’s mathematics, statistics and probabilities. The play even includes jokes about actuaries in between filling the audience in about facts of life in percentages. “Life is a game of chance,” Amanda says.

Amanda mentions the presence of guns in the house, one a pistol she recently purchased for her protection. Everything in “Natural Shocks” leads to the play being an elaborate statement for tighter gun control. It’s not a direct statement but one that shows some of what is lost – remarkable, sentient, searching lives like Amanda’s – in the selfish acts of mass shootings.

Woven into Lauren Gunderson’s play are two giant “h’s” – Hamlet and humor.

The humor is wry. Much comes from Jennifer Vosters’ expressions – sly facial asides like little exclamation points… or like sugar grains on Peeps when she’s being directly funny. Like Amanda’s affair: “Five tequilas. What can I say? I was in love.”

“Hamlet” is explored. Lauren Gunderson measures the “to be or not to be” speech, and Amanda/Jennifer Vosters – oh so close to the viewer – pours revealing interpretations of phrases and single words.

In this section, the title of the play arrives when Hamlet speaks of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

Lauren Gunderson’s Amanda slips in an insurance-agent joke: “We don’t have coverage for most of those things.”

As action flows in the 70-minute production, Jennifer Vosters is moving around the real home basement. The natural setting adds to Amanda’s realness. Amanda speaks to the camera, often in extreme closeness, as if it were a person… or authorities as she documents her predicted fate.

Much is rapid-fire, intense, volatile… smokin’. There are one-person performances, and then there is Jennifer Vosters’ one-person performance – original setting, original source of production and approached like a driver on the lam racing at 120 over police spike strips.

***

The basics

Presenter: Third Avenue Playhouse

Format: “PlayWorks 2021” play reading series

Creative: Playwright – Lauren Gunderson; director – Michael Cotey; sound designer and editor – Peter Goode; Jon Ginnow

Cast:

Amanda – Jennifer Vosters

Info: thirdavenueplayhouse.com

Next in play reading series: “A Lost Leonardo” by David Davalos, 7 p.m. April 2.

Clockwise from upper left: Jennifer Vosters, Michael Cotey, Lauren Gunderson. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

***

Friday’s talkback

Present by ZOOM were Robert Boles, co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse, from Sturgeon Bay; Lauren Gunderson, from the San Francisco area; and Michael Cotey and Jennifer Vosters, from separate places in southeastern Wisconsin.

Lauren Gunderson is one of America’s most-produced playwrights. One of her plays, “Silent Sky,” the soulful story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, was a favorite in Northeastern Wisconsin in recent years in professional, collegiate and community productions – each wonderful.

Lauren Gunderson found Jennifer Voster’s performance “breathtaking” and was smitten by Michael Cotey’s idea of place and iPhone use and wanted to know how he came up with the idea. She liked how her play was presented in a way she hadn’t imagined when writing it. In the first moments of the production, she said she found herself thinking, “Wow, where’s this going?”

Robert Boles said the production was “truly extraordinary…” searched for words and came back to “truly extraordinary.”

Much of the conversation turned on the whole point of the play – the tighter gun-control element. Lauren Gunderson said her catalyst was the Parkland, Florida, shootings that killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Also entering the conversation prominently was the Columbine High School killings that claimed 12 students and a teacher in 1999 – an event that affected Lauren Gunderson and Michael Cotey.

Along the way, Michael Cotey mentioned that the play – because of its in-your-face, hard-reality subject matter – doesn’t fit the business model for theaters that have to survive on drawing paying audience. Lauren Gunderson said she is proud of this singular play and it’s one of the cases in which her thought is “S…w the business model, let’s use the art… as catharsis” (and more).

Jennifer Vosters and Michael Cotey spoke of the nuts and bolts of the production. Jennifer Vosters spoke of how she was inspired by Amanda’s enthusiasm for statistics and how she and Michael Cotey envisioned the use of the space and iPhone to create a unique relationship between actor and audience. Michael Cotey said her performance was memorized – a step way beyond that of a one-person performance for reader’s theater – and said, “Jennifer, you’re amazing.”

Lauren Gunderson was asked through chat questions about connecting Amanda’s career passions into something theatrically sensible. She had wondered, “How do you personify statistics?” and struck upon Hamlet, who has been part of her life since youth. His speech was to be – as something “less plumbed… known, but not explored” – a crucial part of her play and Amanda’s/Jennifer Vosters’ finely tuned, carefully mined interpretation.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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