‘House Arrest’ presents history, lacks theatrics

William Pham

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2 out of 5 stars 

 “House Arrest” is a play written by Anna Deavere Smith that explores the controversial histories of certain American presidents. Because of the distanced learning semester, the UCCS Theatre Department decided to share the entire performance virtually and free of charge, through the video sharing platform Vimeo. 

     Although the shift to the digital platform is noteworthy and innovative — providing access to theatre lovers without risking public safety — the play itself delivers neither an exciting nor attentive performance I expected from a university-sponsored production.  

     To be frank, I came into this play knowing very little. All I knew was that it was a play about presidents, and it explored topics like race, history and sex throughout American history, echoing the problems we still see in modernity.  

     I came into the play with an open mind, ready to be surprised and entertained. 

     Little did I know, the play is not the typical “play” audiences might expect but is essentially like listening to a history book. It takes and compiles testimonies, quotes, historical accounts and statements of presidents and other high-profile individuals involved in politics. The actors played these individuals and recited, verbatim, their characters’ accounts and thoughts about different controversial topics.  

     The play opens with a monologue that runs for about 5-7 minutes; the actress sits alone on stage and recites her lines. Then the next segment follows, and it is a different actor reciting another 5-7-minute monologue. About 30 minutes in, I began to realize that this was the agenda for the entire play. 

     “House Arrest” is an assortment of different actors performing different monologues back-to-back to back for 2 hours and 20 minutes. 

     Each actor appeared alone on stage with few props, no costumes and no stage movement.  

     The inclusion of the limited props they did use was nice, but really made little difference in the play itself, and honestly could have been abandoned.  

     The cast did not dress up for their parts, except for one instance that was supposed to be comedic — but it really was not. They just stood or sat in the middle of the stage and recited their lines. It looked like the stereotypical audition scenes in movies where there is a single spotlight shining on the person on stage, and they leave after being told, “Thank you for your time,” except there was no “Thank you.” Just lots of time I had felt wasted staring at nothing particularly interesting. 

     The production value seemed to range from low to none. For a university production, it was a bit strange that the actors dressed in their everyday clothes. Every one of them had jeans and a t-shirt on. I question why they did not dress up as George Stephanopoulos or President Bill Clinton?  

     Though the lack of costumes might have been to emphasize the seriousness of the topics, a visual component would have been nice, considering that it is a play and not a podcast.  

     At the 1-hour mark, it got boring. It felt like watching the worst parts of a 3-hour lecture combined with the driest parts of an old documentary. The play went on and on. I had trouble finishing it, so I split it into two segments of 1 hour and 15 minutes each.  

     The performance of the cast was pretty typical — some accents here and there — but nothing to bend over backwards for. Fortunately, there was a particular actress, Desirée Myers, that delivered a pretty fantastic performance. She played Anita Hill and Paulette Jenkins.  

     Especially in her Paulette Jenkins monologue, Myers managed to capture the true intensity and gravity of her character’s situation; it was emotional and tear-jerking.  

     Beyond Jenkin’s performance, the one other redeeming quality was the actual history that was explored. It was intriguing and genuinely interesting. 

     Smith explores the more sensitive topics in American history and does so in a raw and unfiltered manner.  

     Exploring Thomas Jefferson’s affair with a slave (possibly concubine) and alluding to the possibility that he was homosexual are interesting bits of history that people often do not consider. 

     Understanding why JFK decided to take that fateful trip to Texas in 1963 puts into perspective the type of person he was. 

     These are the things that I was looking for in the play, and this was why I did end up watching the whole thing. The stories were so insightful and were the strongest element of the production.  

     However, even these amazing perspectives and historical insights by Smith were not enough to resuscitate this play. 

     I do not recommend “House Arrest” because it is disappointing how little effort was put in. The directors and producers had such a good opportunity to make this an exciting and innovative production, especially given their virtual capabilities, and it puzzles me why they would not want to seize the opportunity.  

     Even for being a free play for students, this was not worth it. Just look for a podcast.  

Photo courtesy of UCCSpresents.org