The Play “Borderlands” by Eric Samuelsen

I went to Eric Samuelsen’s play Borderlands this week.  It was being performed in the small intimate Studio Theatre at Rose Wagner in SLC.  While The Book of Mormon musical is an outsider’s profane look at Mormonism, Samuelsen’s play is an insider’s intimate examination.

I would recommend the play to LDS Church members who can handle the emotional punch, but it will not be enjoyed by “pat-answer” Mormons.  While I basically enjoyed the play, I found it to be somewhat flawed.  But I’m not totally sure why.

According to Ben Fulton writing in the SLTrib (29 Mar 2011):

. . . the play is set in–of all places–a used-car lot.

“I really enjoy buying used cars,” says the playwright and BYU theater professor during an interview in the lobby of Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.  “It’s the one place in American commercial life that’s contingent.  We can buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store and know exactly what we’re getting, and at what price.  Used cars are one of the most interesting transactions left to us.”

And, of course, they make a rich dramatic metaphor.  The contingent space of the used-car lot, the transaction of purchasing a used car and even the simple act of holding a conversation while sitting inside a vehicle form the dramatic and poetic parameters of “Borderlands.”

During the performance, I spent most of my time with by head in my hands, hunched over in my seat.  Since there are just 4 actors, and only one set, there is not of a lot of action to observe.  Mostly just listening worked out fine for me.  The show runs 90 minutes and has no intermission.

Between scenes, during the blackouts, the actors made minor changes to the one and only set . . . while music played in the background.  This made me think that this whole production would have been far better off as a musical.  No fancy production numbers, just songs that would be appropriate for the dialogue.

The play starts out with “borderlanders” trying to deal with their Mormon issues, and then evolves into an examination of the tensions surrounding gays and the LDS Church.  The ending seemed overwrought and contrived.  But the evening with The Plan B Company was catharic and all involved in the production should be commended.  It is definitely on a much higher plain than much of Mormon “literature.”  Local reviews from both the City Weekly and SLTrib were favorable. 

According to Scott Renshaw writing in the City Weekly:

Samuelsen isn’t out to skewer Mormon hypocrisy, though.  His four principal characters revolve around one another in an exploration of the arbitary lines adherent to any religion set up . . .  Is it “better” to be a believer who isn’t doing all the right things, or an outwardly faithful follower who doesn’t really believe?  And where can all these varying perspectives intersect in a place of grace?

 Ben Fulton writing in the SLTrib (1 Apr 2011) states:

It’s not just honesty and truth-telling at work here.  Samuelsen molds the play’s dialogue into a miniature treatise on the true depth of religious faith.  Believing and knowing you’re a member of the church doesn’t guarantee you’ll act like one. . . .

So far, so obvious.  But it’s the way Samuelsen drives this point home that matters, and in the play’s final scene the cast creates a small piece of theater magic.

Here is where I disagree.  One man’s “magic” in another person’s “overwrought and contrived.”  I did not particularly enjoy the ending and found it very unsatisfying.

Samuelsen does successfully (tongue-in-cheek) explain the difference between Mormons and non-Mormons:  “non-Mormons have friends with benefits,” while Mormons have “friends with agendas.”

In future posts, I will deal with my take on the religious issues surrounding the play.  Its script is published in the March edition of Dialogue.

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2 Responses to The Play “Borderlands” by Eric Samuelsen

  1. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, April 8 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

  2. rogerdhansen says:

    The Mormon Letters blog “Dawning of a Brighter Day” states that I called “Borderlands” overwrought and contrived. In point of fact, I called its ending “overwrought and contrived.” In general, I liked the play and the production.

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