Student directors put the spotlight on class conflict for Project II.
The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s annual spring showcase, Project II, will feature the works of two graduate directing students: “The Exception and the Rule,” directed by Jean Carlo Yunén, and “Woyzeck,” directed by Mark Anthony Vallejo. While the plays focus on separate aspects of class hierarchy, they are connected through the common theme of oppression at the hands of a corrupt system, Vallejo said.
“The Exception and the Rule”
The stereotypical Wall Street businessman who values money above morals inspired the protagonist in Yunén’s interpretation of “The Exception and the Rule.”
The play tells the story of a profit-seeking merchant who travels across a fictional desert in the hopes of closing a major oil deal. To expedite the journey and beat his business rivals, he enlists the help of a working-class porter and a guide, both of whom he treats as his social inferiors along the way. Weimar Republic-era playwright Bertolt Brecht advocated a theatrical system that strips away the notions of class, and wrote “The Exception and the Rule” as a critique of a capitalist system that views people as commodities, Yunén said. The play was written in 1930, but Yunén said he decided not to set it in a specific time period to make the social message more accessible to modern audiences.
“In essence, it’s a very Marxist play,” Yunén said. “You can definitely see how the system of capitalism makes everyone involved lose their humanity.”
Yunén said he highlighted the injustice that clouds the class system through the racial and gender diversity of his cast members. For example, Jasmine Flores, a third-year theater student, plays the traditionally male role of the merchant. Flores said the role gives her the opportunity to criticize the overly common phenomenon of corrupt men being in power.
“There’s still this idea today that white men rule over society,” Flores said. “I think using women to portray these men is a statement, and showing how these women see these oppressive men on stage is very interesting.”
Flores said she modeled her portrayal of the character after real people and fictional characters, including President Donald Trump and Yosemite Sam, whose manipulative tactics parallel those of the merchant. She said she stands with straight posture, leads with her hips as she walks and invades people’s personal space to emulate the mannerisms of a powerful man who exploits those around him without consequence.
“The message is so relevant, it can really fit into any time period,” Flores said. “It blows my mind because when I first read the play I was like, ‘Wow, this was written in the 1930s and nothing has changed.’”
Yunén said the production incorporates Brecht’s use of breaking of the fourth wall, through which the actors address the audience, imploring them to watch the ensuing action with a critical mind. The theatrical technique makes Brecht’s intended social commentary more explicit by constantly reminding the audience that the oppression depicted on stage is disturbingly commonplace, he said.
“The actors are coming together to showcase this particular instance of abuse,” Yunén said. “They’re saying that this is not okay and telling (the audience) to look with critical eyes because these things happen every day.”
Lust, religion and infidelity fuse together on stage in “Woyzeck.”
The play “Woyzeck” by Georg Büchner follows Franz Woyzeck, a poor soldier who gives all of his earnings to his wife and his baby born out of wedlock. To financially sustain himself, Woyzeck participates in a doctor’s unethical study that leads to his starvation. He later begins questioning his wife’s fidelity and enters a downward spiral that ultimately culminates in violence. Vallejo said Woyzeck’s character is desperate for the truth and represents the lower class that is neglected by those considered to be their social superiors.
“What’s sad about this play is that here we have a lower-class family and an upper-class (person) who’s pretty much pulling the strings,” Vallejo said. “We have these powerhouses who just use lower-class people as puppets.”
Vallejo said he incorporated modern elements to establish a contemporary atmosphere within the play’s ambiguous time period. He dressed the characters in trendier clothing, like skinny jeans for men, and used songs like “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” by Roy Orbison which was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” for the play’s score.
Ryan Stevens, a graduate student in playwriting and the dramaturge in “Woyzeck,” said the play mirrors today’s political unrest in the wake of the 2016 election. Stevens said the election sparked a trend in which people unhappy with the governmental system take their frustrations out on minorities and members of the lower class. Similarly, Woyzeck’s anger toward his own economic standing leads him to hurt someone who is not culpable for his suffering, Stevens said.
“Blue-collar people are angry because they think that (minorities) are the problem,” Stevens said. “I think Büchner’s original intention in ‘Woyzeck’ was showing misplaced aggression and misplaced frustration.”
Vallejo said the play also highlights class differences by showcasing elitists like the doctor, who uses less-privileged people to enhance his scientific or personal ideologies. Like many current political focal points including the #MeToo movement, which lends a voice to women exploited by men in power, Vallejo said his play draws attention to the suffering caused by the oppression of an unjust system.
“People with power roll over you just because they want to, and no one is actually going to say anything,” Vallejo said. “Now we have the #MeToo movement, and we have all these powerful figures who are getting stripped of their powers because people are starting to speak up and create a call.”