Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Planet Ant Theatre’s late-night series, a haven for the new and experimental, also reserves a place of honor for one director of BoxFest Detroit. Andrea Scobie, the audience-chosen winner of the 2010 festival, now contributes to the edgy and trailblazing series with the world premiere of Sean Paraventi’s Endangered. A culturally charged, topical piece of whimsy, this one-act play is eager to condemn the sensationalist quality vacuum of reality TV, but does so in a way that gives equal — and unexpected — consideration to the rarely defended television landscape as we know it.

The show’s forty-five minutes concern the events of an unusual holdup by an equally unusual gunman. Joe (Josh Campos) is so distraught at the recent programming decisions of the fictitious basic-cable American Education Channel, he storms the station headquarters and takes hostages Arnie (Dan Jaroslaw), vice president of programming, Leigh (Kristen Wagner), star of the mega-popular reality show about her twenty-kid family, and Brad (Eric Niece), Arnie’s assistant. Confined to the office reception area for the duration of the play, the characters participate in a talky, academic screed against the lowest-common-denominator schlock that masquerades as educational TV. The greatest accomplishment of Paraventi’s script is in assigning to the gun-wielding maniac the opinions most likely shared by the viewer: however disturbed, Joe is eminently relatable, because these arguments against the trashiness of reality TV have long been tent poles in popular discourse about what’s destroying America. Heck, even the people putting this tripe on the air don’t seem to like what they’re doing. Yet by holding these representatives of reality TV hostage (and, by extension, the medium itself), the playwright forces the viewer to respond to them as defensive victims, which shows incredible potential to take the conversation in a new direction.

The performances, although understandably archetypal, are well guided by Scobie as the characters look in vain for a safe and mutually satisfying resolution to a dramatic device that never ends well. Jaroslaw nicely underplays the formerly principled executive who blots out his shame with his success, and Wagner commits to the plasticity of her newly famous Kate Gosselin type while still having real and interesting feelings buried, however deep. Campos delivers handily as Joe; it’s not easy to make the viewer simultaneously agree with and fear a character, but the actor achieves it through a fine display of both comprehending intellect and unpredictable danger. However, the most unassuming personality is also the most intriguing: Brad is a low-level employee, so whether he personally ascribes to the medium that gives him a paycheck isn’t a foregone conclusion. For his part, Niece is delightfully relatable yet evasive, leaving a modicum of doubt as to whether he’s speaking the entire truth or merely getting on the good side of his captor.

The play’s title echoes not only the near-extinct species highlighted on Joe’s favorite nature programs, but also the threatened status of quality shows in the television ecosystem; perhaps even the people willing to take real action against the loss are a dying breed. In all, Endangered functions best as an intellectual exercise, fueling and reframing the conversation about how popular culture feeds Americans’ worst proclivities for excess and fame. As a drama, the show is not as successful: with the characters at one long impasse, the unspoken now what? is magnified as Joe doesn’t seem to have any concrete goals driving his criminal act, and the plot similarly struggles to find resolution. Regardless, this is an interesting subversion of a strangely one-sided dialogue: for all the millions who watch and enjoy reality TV, not even its proponents generally defend the medium as enriching or even worthwhile per se, so holding its creators at gunpoint and forcing them to defend it is a thrilling prospect. Ultimately, this heated production takes Paraventi’s insistently fantastical premise and enlivens a well-worn discourse with careful deliberation and a surprising kind of neutrality.


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