‘Tidy’ Is An Environmental Puzzle

Audience must figure out what is real in new one-woman play with neat technical effects staged by Renaissance Theaterworks.

By - Mar 27th, 2023 01:33 pm
Cassandra Bissell as The Detective in Renaissance Theaterworks' TIDY. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Cassandra Bissell as The Detective in Renaissance Theaterworks’ TIDY. Photo by Ross Zentner.

For its entry into World Premiere Wisconsin, a festival of firsts for state theater companies through June 30, Renaissance Theaterworks has lavished a thoughtful array of theatrical support on Tidy, being given birth through April 16 at 225 South Water St., its new home best known as the three-sided stage for Next Act Theatre.

Whether the solo character and the writing deserve the thoughtful care being lavished depends on whether you think the production has found the core of playwright Kristin Idaszak’s concept or merely cracked the surface. Its current hold on our attention is only partial, so this new play is either deeper than this performance or it needs to be performed in a different way. That’s often the dilemma of a new play by a talented writer that has previously gone only through a workshop.

The concept is provocative. A lone woman prowls a room cluttered with cardboard boxes painted gray containing the leavings of her life and experiences. She speaks about her absent roommate and lover, Joy, and every object she touches provides a memory of her travels, her past and her lover. Gray is also the painted color of many of the props.

Beyond the engaging set by Jeffrey D. Kmiec and the clever assortment of props by Olivia Bastien – props that tie again and again into the script – there are also sound effects by Christopher Kriz and dancing lighting designed by Noele Stollmack that work together to switch moods and moments of thought. All this under director Elizabeth Margolius, who uses these interlayed technical elements to startle the audience and actress Cassandra Bissell into shifts in thought and direction. The relationship of the tech elements to the script is the most memorable thing about this production.

The woman is  described only as The Detective, though it might be the audience that is the detective, investigating her veracity. Some of the dialogue and an attractive play guide explore one major theme as she tries to simplify her life and possessions – climate change and what we individually can do about it.

That audience guide dwells on how a youth movement is leading the new environmental campaign, though the play barely touches on this trend. The play is about objects dominating our lives and an Orwellian sense that there is a growing number of holding centers for people who don’t fit into environmental change.

Though the room on one level is a circular void in future time, the woman is imagining specific doors in her home and there are clues that she is being spied upon and that her memories are muddled. She may trust her absent roommate has her best interests at heart, but we don’t.

Bissell is a fine conversational actress I’ve seen many times. She has a natural vocal presence, but as she wanders and speculates it is the sound effects and the lights – at one point the lights echo the butterfly references in the script — that really signal changing moments in her discoveries.

There is a sense that the actress is more on an even keel mentally than the character is in her babbling highs and lows. But the director chose to have Bissell play the dialogue in a measured way. A different way – and tighter editing — might give the play a stronger emotional grip on the patrons. Right now it feels too wordy, as if the tech elements are being used to provide the focus.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blogs here and here.

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