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Explosive Feelings in a Hushed Voice

By: Andrew Block
Date: Feb 09, 2016


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For their latest production, The Amoralists head in a new direction


"Kinda romantic."

"Yeah, kinda."

This seemingly innocuous exchange occurs between two characters in Emily Schwend's Utility, currently receiving its world premiere by The Amoralists at Rattlestick Theater. Amber and Chris, an often-on-the-outs married couple who just can't seem to quit each other, are setting aside their myriad problems to throw a birthday party for one of their children. Just when it seems they've got everything under control -- wouldn't you know -- the electricity goes out.

There in the dark, they have a brief moment of ironic romance, lit only by a single birthday candle resting atop a bowl full of generic, store-bought mac-and-cheese. That image could also represent the ambitions of many downtown theatre artists, who shine on through any number of tough situations. The Amoralists are a case in point: Despite facing increasingly intimidating challenges over the last eight years, they continue to make provocative theatre in New York.

Of course, Utility might seem like a departure for a company known for onstage violence, drugs, and nudity – not to mention unfiltered characters who display full-frontal, gut-wrenching emotion. Schwend's play initially resembles your standard kitchen-sink drama, complete with an actual kitchen sink that sits upstage center on Kate Noll's naturalistic East Texas set.

"Our shows are often riddled with violence, with characters who play conflict close to the surface, who shout their feelings," says artistic director James Kautz, who also plays Chris. He acknowledges that Schwend's characters are "more repressed – ones whose rage and disappointment live under the skin."

When you peel back the play's wallpaper, however, you discover the live-wire electricity sparking underneath. Schwend's blue-collar dreamers, just struggling to catch a break, ultimately embody the company's mission to produce work "of no moral judgment" that is "dedicated to an honest expression of the American condition, plumbing the depths of the social, political, spiritual, and sexual characteristics of human nature."


In another departure, Utility is the first Amoralists production to be written by a woman. But while this may be her first piece with the company, it is Schwend's third collaboration with Kautz. (Last season, he co-starred in Second Stage's production of her feminist horror-drama The Other Thing.) She says she's found a kinship within the company, since they are all drawn to "theatre that gets its hands dirty."

There's certainly nothing tidy about how the play depicts Amber, who is fighting for survival, living paycheck to paycheck, navigating a rocky marriage, and struggling to keep her identity. "Women don't get praised," says Schwend. "It's just assumed they have to do it." The playwright does, however, give Amber room to feel empowered. "These people can feel exhausted, saddened. But they have a resilient story," she says. "Life is difficult, but not tragic."

Kautz echoes that sentiment when he reflects on the future of The Amoralists, where recent changes have given way to strengthening his leadership role. A temporary slow-down in producing work gave room to examine what's ahead for the company and to reaffirm its identity. "We're all trying to be the best we can be, not just as artists, but as people," he says. "We keep trying to have a healthy start." He notes that with Utility, the company can get "back to the basics. Morally ambiguous characters, in high stakes circumstances. Perhaps with room to breathe."


TDF Members: At press time, discount ticket were available for Utility. Click here to browse our current offerings.

Andrew Block is TDF's Manager of Off and off-Off Broadway Services

Photos by Russ Rowland. Top photo: Vanessa Vache as Amber and James Kautz as Chris.

Andrew Block is an Ovation Award-winning director who hails from New Orleans and now works primarily with the vibrant NYC independent theatre community. He also serves as TDF's Manager of Off & Off-Off Broadway Services.