Student Body Review
On Monday May 8, Hofstra’s Department of Dance and Drama presented Student Body, one of four plays represented in the end-of-the-year Student Rep, at the Black Box Theatre. The play explores themes of consent, conditional justice and personal accountability and comes with a content warning stating, “This play centers around an extensive conversation about sexual assault and also includes multiple descriptions of sexual assault.”
When the doors of the Black Box Theatre open and the multitudes of parents, faculty and students stream into the intimate space, I expect the familiar dimming of lights and preparatory shuffling as everyone settles into a few hours of innocuous escapism.
Instead, Student Body, written by Frank Winters and directed by Hofstra’s Peter Charney, launches viewers into a powerfully confrontational experience. At random times throughout the play cast members walk into the audience area to sit or simply stand amongst the seats, utilizing the entire space to absorb viewers into the contentious character exchanges.
With 10 cast members in all, the play can feel overcrowded. At the same time, the placement of characters throughout the entire theatre allows for unanticipated interactions, especially when a forgotten character sitting in an upper row of seats conveys unsettling information later in the play.
Student Body deals with the videotape of a possible rape, with the collection of friends and acquaintances gathered at a theatre (one of the many details that blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction) deciding whether to show it to the police or delete it altogether.
What initially seems like a clear-cut decision soon devolves into a labyrinth of moral quagmires. Complications crop up in the very beginning when Sarah (Anna Rudegeair), owner of the videotape, says figures in the video are unclear. Accusations quickly foment among the people who were at the party where it took place.
Further divisions arise when the characters in the play, all recent graduates, realize the threat to their personal lives if association with the tape were traced back to them. One by one personal associations with the tape unravel until only Daisy (Ashley Miller), an outsider to the group, maintains that the tape be taken to the police. In the end the video is destroyed. Viewers leave, like the characters, with a feeling of hopeless despair.
Student Body isn’t just a sardonic depiction of humanity’s conditional morality, it’s an invitation for the audience to make up their own minds on the “right” decision. How far do our moral convictions extend when personal detriment is at hand? What justifies the risk of possibly engendering disastrous, life-ending rumors? In the end the play asks us about the very basics, like, is there justice at all?
Hofstra’s production of Student Body shines in its use of the small space provided for the play. While the entire cast delivers individually compelling performances, together, especially in the tensest moments of the script, group interactions can come off as soap opera screaming bouts or unintentional hilarity, as when the entire cast chases Daisy across the stage as she grips the camera in her hand.
Still, the Dance and Drama Department excels in adapting Winters’ script, managing to realize truly gripping moments in their treatment of the darkest of themes.
One of these moments showcases a heart-wrenching defense of the victim by Maggie (Sarah Hoogenraad). Hoogenraad delivers a heart-wrenching performance as someone desperately in love trying to prevent the public humiliation of her crush. In her monologue, Maggie painfully paints the party scene as beautiful and innocuous, further increasing the ambiguity of the situation.
Student Body asks us the hardest questions. Throughout the entire play the audience acts as a passive fly on the wall, but the script stresses audience interpretation. Indeed, it forces you to make your own best guess in an impossible situation. While at times the direction of the cast falls through its carefully constructed atmosphere, the overall thematic handling makes Student Body a haunting journey that keeps you questioning past the theatre doors.