Photo provided by Ohio University College of Fine Arts
Theater, like the arts in general, takes on many roles in society. On the surface, it entertains, bringing enjoyment to an audience. More often than not, it also informs. Plays and productions can serve as educational tools that explain concepts to an audience. When theater is successful in both entertaining and informing, it acts as a vehicle that transports its audience to a different place and time. Ohio University’s Theater Division’s latest production, Marathon ’33, directed by Aurora E. Held and produced by Michael Lincoln, fulfills its role as entertainer. Many times throughout the play, it truly feels as if the audience has been transported to another time. However, vital background information is missing that prevents the play from completely immersing its audience in the world it has created.
Marathon ’33 takes place during the Great Depression. The play is a semi-autobiographical story told by June Havoc, portrayed in OU’s production by Elizabeth Johnson. During the depression, actresses and Vaudeville performers like Havoc found themselves unemployed. They had to search for less traditional ways to earn a living, such as through dance marathons. Those marathons were unrelenting, as participants would have to continually dance for hours — or, in some cases, days — with only one 11-to-15-minute break to rest every hour. The grueling conditions the participants went through during these marathons acted as a mirror reflecting the hardships and struggles the country was facing at the time.
To truly understand the play and its themes, the audience needs to understand all of the background info on the marathons. That, unfortunately, is where the play stumbles. During the play, many of the aspects of the marathons are explained. The brief breaks, the merciless conditions and other facets of the performances are explained and demonstrated by the different characters in the play. The play does a good job of making sure the audience understands the nuances of the marathons.
But much of the background info that is necessary to understand the marathons’ purposes and origins is hidden in the play’s program. It may have been a difficult task to insert the information into the play without it feeling awkwardly juxtaposed, but it would have been far more beneficial for the play to find a way to do so. Additionally, there are many concepts sprinkled into the production that would have been obvious to an audience familiar with the Great Depression era. Eighty-two years later, audience members may struggle to understand such concepts, because they require a little more exposition that the play ever truly supplies. If viewers aren’t attentive to the program, that inability to supply crucial information creates barriers between the play’s audience and the world it has created.
Even so, Marathon ’33 does enough to effectively transport its audience into the world it has put on display in some capacity. Perhaps the best way was through the acting. The cast collectively didn’t seem as though they were pretending to be characters from the Great Depression. Rather, it was as though depression-era entertainers had been placed in our time. They acted, spoke and behaved like they had come from a different time. The headliners and main actors did a superb job, but even the background characters were entertaining and enjoyable to watch. You can feel the desperation and struggles that Havoc went through by observing Johnson’s performance.
However, actress Emilio Tirri, who played Havoc’s dance partner, Patsy, outshined Johnson in some respects. That is not to say Johnson does not do a good job, but Tirri brings a characterization and high-energy performance throughout the entire play, and the walls between performer and character blurred many times, which made the performance feel organic.
Audience members can also be immersed in Marathon ‘33’s world through the sounds of the play. A live band performed on the stage, supplying familiar depression-era tunes. Songs from the ‘30s, like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, are used to create a mood during the play. Often, the contrast between the songs and the scenes they were paired were ironic. The staging and props all seemed like they came out of 1933 as well. Sprawled across the walls were vintage advertisements for candies and sodas, used to engross the audience in the consumer messages of the time. The costumes worn by the cast members, whether they were the rags and the richly-designed pieces, hearkened back to the style of the time.
Although entertaining, Marathon ’33 was a surprisingly bleak play. At first, several of its characters were enjoyable jesters that poked fun at the situations around them. As the play went along, those players ended up being some of the most bitter and depressing of the cast. Each of the contestants was highly welcoming and congenial when the marathon first began, but as the hours waned away, they turned nasty, deceitful and treacherous. There were several unexpected narrative twists along the way, and when the play finally reached its destination, the ending was as depressing as the era the production takes place during. It is a tragic but moving journey to watch as the hope is drained away from the characters and the story.
During many moments of Marathon ’33, the audience is taken to the world of the marathons. The characters, the props and the music all blended together to create a cohesive environment. But the lack of some vital information in the narrative prevents a permanent environment from being formed. Where many works of fiction too often rely on exposition, Marathon ’33 doesn’t do it enough. The world it effectively creates is wonderfully rich despite a few hiccups, and it is one that audience members should find themselves eager to explore.
Catch Marathon ’33 in The Forum Theater of the RTV Building from February 18-21 and February 24-27 at 8 p.m.