In one of many intensely emotional passages in Plan-B Theatre’s unprecedented streamed production of Jenifer Nii’s The Audacity, actor April Fossen rises to an unforgettable moment in Utah theater history. Among the six characters she portrays in this solo work is Josie Bassett, one of Utah’s most famous pioneer ranchers. Josie, nearly 90, is walking painfully after a fall, which presumably broke a hip. She is talking to her horse, named Helen, as she prepares to hand her over to a neighbor so he can take care of her.
Josie’s words are a lament from a woman who has lived long enough to see the post-World War II burst of consumerism, which has championed making life “easier and more convenient.” With formidable dramatic impact as potent in streamed format as it would have been before an audience in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts, Fossen brings Josie’s words to stunning acknowledgment of their urgent relevance in a world being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic:
This is what it’s come to, Helen! People so caught up with ease and convenience they go days without lookin’ up at the sky. And they think I’m nutty! There are children walkin’ this earth right now who won’t know a minute of freedom, beholden as they are to everyone and everything. They’re handing themselves over to people they don’t even know and calling it “progress.”
Plan-B is closing its remarkable 29th season on a note that never could have been imagined last fall. Capping a season dedicated to original works by women Utah playwrights about women, The Audacity, directed by Jerry Rapier, is a pinnacle moment of rare excellence in the Utah Enlightenment. It is a vivid testament to Plan-B’s creative resilience at a time when any perception of normalcy (whatever that may have been) has been usurped and shattered beyond repair.
The stream for The Audacity will be free and available to anyone, accessible at the Plan-B website, beginning just after midnight on April 1 and continuing through April 5 at 11:59 p.m. The stream is currently available to ticket holders and subscribers only.
In the world of performing arts, the most astute creative producers know that a new composition of music, dance or the spoken word only becomes complete with the audience—and its “heart, mind, soul and spirit,” as choreographer Ann Carlson described in an interview with The Utah Review last fall. Actors, too, are nourished, activated and inspired by the energy of the audience in front of them. In ordinary circumstances, Fossen would have had 10 performances, finding the nuances that inspire professionals to improve and perfect continuously their work on stage. Having that experience stripped away can become unsettling or devastating, even while the reasons for the isolation confirm it as the most socially responsible action to follow.
In her single performance recorded for streaming, Fossen delivers spectacular results. The sincerity of her commitment to give Nii’s exceptional script and the organic essence of the six characters Fossen portrays their integrity is one of the most inspired experiences ever witnessed in a Plan-B production.
Immediately after the scene of the 90-year-old Josie Bassett’s lament, Fossen assumes the role of Josie’s mother, Elizabeth Bassett, who is in her mid-twenties. Fossen’s face and voice soften magically, embodying the youthful optimism of Elizabeth, who is pregnant with her third child. The young Bassetts have just completed the journey from Arkansas to Brown’s Park, which would become their homestead. Elizabeth says to her unseen husband, “Of all the places you’ve been, I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like THIS place, have you? This is OUR place, dearest, made specially for us by Mother Earth herself.”
Whenever Fossen switches characters, a musical tone or sound unique to each role is heard. The play is not chronologically structured but the flashbacks are coordinated clearly according to the emotions and sentiments of the characters involved. It is a lucid script and easy to follow.
The three Bassett women characters are drawn from their actual historical natures and identities. Meanwhile, three fictional characters complete the narrative ensemble. One of those at the center of The Audacity’s journey to an epiphany is Christine, a 51-year-old professional specializing in forensic accounting. She has stopped at the historic monument in Uintah County where Bassett’s cabin, which inspired the production’s set design, is located. Christine is 240 miles away from Salt Lake City.
Christine always seems to be on the defense, especially when she has not acted in a way that would justify it. She laughs nervously. She is exasperated and disappointed that she is not being taken seriously by her male colleagues. When she realizes that her partners chose her for burnishing their optics of diversity in her career field, she must fight back against her male colleagues who have seen her as conveniently dispensable and objectified.
In one scene in the cabin, Christine is surprised to see a photo of Josie’s two sons. She talks aloud to an unseen Josie about her own daughter and how she had hoped that her life and career would be exemplars for her daughter to emulate. Fossen communicates powerfully the desperation and forlorn tone of what she sees as her inadequacy. Christine says, “My life would evidence the truth of what I was telling her, and she’d know there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.” She laughs with a weary sense, “You had boys. ‘A pioneer of feminism – and you had boys.”
The earlier historical counterpart character of Christine is Rosalie, the wife of a Mormon stake president and the lawyer who defended Josie in court against charges of cattle rustling. Rosalie, who was educated in the eastern U.S., admires Josie’s capacity for independence. Her frustrations of inadequacy in the pioneer wilderness resemble those of Christine in the 21st century corporate world. Despairing that she is unable to bear children and cannot master skills such as knitting, tending a garden or curing meat, Rosalie prays aloud, “Because I do not understand, dear Heavenly Father, when I wake every morning an even greater outcast than I was in Illinois. I am not equipped for this! I don’t know how much longer I can bear the privation and isolation.”
Meanwhile, Fossen’s Josie resonates in rock-ribbed, articulate tones. Nii also captures in her writing the sly wit Bassett was known for, a quality that Fossen also delivers expertly.
Fossen’s Queen Ann (the nickname of Josie’s younger sister) speaks with the accent of her East Coast education. Ann was just like her sister so, hence, the Queen appellation was the by-product of what must have been fierce, yet good-natured, sisterly competition. And, Ann’s pioneer philosophy is as articulate and clear-headed as Josie’s take on the world. Using the metaphor of an old cow’s habit of chewing her cud, Ann adds, “I often wonder when we will learn as much as a cow knows without trying to learn.”
Likewise, Fossen gives the fictitious Dottie her due as Josie’s hunting companion. She delivers one of Nii’s best biting lines flawlessly, when Dottie recalls the Life magazine story from 1948 about her friend. Dottie describes the magazine’s treatment of her friend’s life as being “like she’s some kind of exotic zoo animal, so rare she’s near to extinct.”
For those who have never seen a Plan-B performance, this 70-minute production should not be missed. The company consistently has sold out its production runs in its Studio Theatre venue in downtown Salt Lake City and waiting lists for seats to open have become common.
However, at a time when it is impossible to present live theater before an audience, Plan-B’s generous offering of five full days of free, public streaming of The Audacity is an opportunity that every Utahn should take, as well as anyone outside of the state.
Plan-B is a nationally acknowledged leader not only for producing entire seasons of original work but also for featuring writers who fulfill the expectations of inclusion and diversity in the creative world. Salt Lake City is one of the most progressive metropolitan areas in the country for producing work by women artists, composers, choreographers, playwrights and filmmakers.
Finally, as Mark Swed, music critic for The Los Angeles Times, explains, considering that the performing arts world has thrived because “it does not respect social distancing,” nevertheless, “our brains have been rewired by the shocking coronavirus epidemic.” He found, for example, the Berlin Philharmonic’s recent live concert without an audience, accessible as a free stream for anyone, “unnerving,” – with “100 or so musicians sitting next to one another” – even though its performance was “outstanding.”
Many local artistic organizations have thrived because of their agility in working with scarce resources and because of their commitment to developing a core of creators, actors, technicians and professionals who are passionate about the work encompassing Plan-B’s artistic mission. However, the pandemic has paralyzed everyone in the larger arts and culture community and no one dares to guess about what the enduring impact will be in the next few months or years.
The only reasons Plan-B logistically could succeed in streaming its world premiere of The Audacity are the show is for one actor (who portrays six characters) and the production work was completed before the social distancing measures and restrictions went into effect.
The most successful artists are those who are fearless and willing to take on risks. This occurs in ordinary times. With The Audacity, Plan-B has made history certainly in the annals of Utah performing arts by streaming its world premiere. And, Fossen’s spell-binding performance of six women characters cements the play’s historical significance in The Utah Enlightenment. It’s that measure of critical success which hopefully will inspire others in Salt Lake City to explore unique platform options for programming.
Rounding out the production team are Sam Allen (assistant director and assistant stage manager), K. L. Alberts (costume designer), Cara Pomeroy (scenic designer), Arika Schockmel (properties designer), Cheryl Ann Cluff (sound designer), Jaron Hermansen (lighting designer) and Jennifer Freed (stage manager). The ending credits features original music by Ricklen Nobis, which was scored for The End of the Horizon, Debora Threedy’s play about Everett Ruess (2008).
For more information, see the Plan-B website.