Theater Reviews: THE CLEAN-UP PROJECT and EGRESS | Buzz Blog

Tuesday, February 22, 2022


Two compelling productions challenge the idea of safe spaces, even for the audience

Posted By on February 22, 2022, 11:08 AM

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click to enlarge Latoya Cameron and Calbert Beck in Plan-B Theatre Company's production of The Clean-Up Project - SHARAH MESERVY
  • Sharah Meservy
  • Latoya Cameron and Calbert Beck in Plan-B Theatre Company's production of The Clean-Up Project
There are times when art comforts you, and times when it very specifically sets out to make you uncomfortable. Those latter occasions can be challenging for audiences, but two local theatrical productions prove that sometimes the best way to take on a complex issue is to put the viewer a little bit on edge.

Melissa Crespo & Sarah Saltwick’s Egress (wrapping up live performances this week, and available via Salt Lake Acting Company’s streaming platform through March 6) takes on that task through a simple but effective rhetorical device: having the unnamed protagonist (Reanne Acasio) tell her story by putting the viewer in her place, describing her situation with “you” pronouns. You are the aspiring architect recently relocated to a New Jersey college to teach architecture classes; you specialize in the way a building is designed for safety through windows, doors and other modes of egress. And you are the one who is clearly still recovering from a gradually-revealed traumatic event that has you losing sleep, and considering whether she will feel safer if she owns a gun.

The production design leans into a sense of psychological unsteadiness, with Dennis Hassan’s set showcasing walls made entirely of doors, and light & sound cues that briefly suggest the protagonist’s sleep-deprived hallucinations. Acasio’s performance effectively captures a woman who desperately wants to return to a sense of security, but isn’t sure what it will take to get there after the foundations of her trust have been shaken. It all gets tied together by a text that uses the notion of literal “safe spaces”—incorporating real-world examples like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas—to interrogate the connection between our desire to feel secure in physical spaces, and how feeling that something that makes us safer becomes as important to us as whether that thing actually makes us safer. It’s an unsteady world when you begin to see something as beautiful as a vase of flowers as a potential threat that keeps growing.

It's certainly a threatening world out there in Carleton Bluford’s The Clean-Up Project as well—but not for the people who are most accustomed in America to seeing that world as threatening. The Plan-B Theatre Company production (currently sold-out for live performances, with streaming access beginning Feb. 23) posits a near-future after a racial uprising, with a Black couple, Jordan (Latoya Cameron) and Melvin (Chris Curlett), still trying to remain detached from the tumultuous events several months later. But those events come directly to their door, first in the form of a pair of white friends (Matthew Sincell and Sarah Walker), and then two authority figures (Calbert Beck and Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin) charged with a very particular kind of tidying up.

Revealing more feels unfair to the sense of discovery involved in Bluford’s powerful text, which takes on some of the most volatile issues of racial justice in our time by naming names (in one particularly powerful instance over the course of several minutes) and flipping the script on who gets the luxury of feeling that the institutional structure protects them. The cast members take what easily could have felt like a series of position-paper speeches, and offers the words with an intensity that makes a wide range of perspectives feel authentic and legitimate, at least from the speaker’s point of view. The audience, however, gets its shake-up moment when they become part of the story in an unexpected way, and not in a way that’s likely to leave a smile on anyone’s face. Even the act of leaving the theater space becomes complicated by an uncertainty about when that is safe to do—and like so much of the best art, it leaves you with the sense that you need to wrestle with a problem honestly, and uncomfortably, before there’s any chance of understanding how to fix it.

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