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Playwright Milo Cramer examines the conflict between privilege and progressive politics
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In a spooky little gentrifying town in the not-so-distant future, activists have been driven underground. The fate of the local economy rests on the shoulders of two privileged but conflicted twentysomethings, Jen and Gil, who must share true love's kiss before the summer solstice. This is the fun-house-mirror reflection of Brooklyn and its ilk conjured in Milo Cramer's Cute Activist, running at The Bushwick Starr. Produced by the Starr with experimental theater company New Saloon, in association with Clubbed Thumb, this world-premiere comedy is equal parts fanciful satire and dystopian nightmare, complete with puppets and songs.
When Cramer started working on the play in 2015 as part of Soho Rep.'s Writer/Director Lab, the word activist didn't have the same urgency as it does today. "It was the previous presidential administration, which was a time of greater complacency," the playwright says. "Being an activist seemed like this mythical thing. You knew they were out there but you didn't know how to become one. Now everyone is an activist in a way, simply because they have to be."
Using campy humor, dense wordplay, and heightened theatricality, Cute Activist addresses many hot-button issues including white privilege, misogyny, and classism. Yet despite those weighty topics, it maintains an inherent silliness. Yes, there are resonant lines like "everything I feel grateful for is also something I could feel guilty about," but there are also magical, singing woodland creatures guiding our heroes on their journey.
"It wasn't initially so whimsical," admits Cramer, whose previous works include Minor Character: Six Translations of Uncle Vanya at the Same Time. "I love fantasy stories, like Harry Potter, and I've consumed so many good versus evil narratives in my life, but none of them provide an appropriate moral framework for the situations I find myself in. So I used that fantasy lens to talk about these bigger issues."
The play also deals with the anxiety that comes with being politically engaged. As Jen travels to her first activist meeting, the audience is privy to her interior monologue, which chronicles her concerns about going. Some are relatable ("What if I get there and there's no one there and it's just me?"); others are ridiculous ("Worst case scenario: I die"). But it's impossible not to feel for her.
"I wanted to incorporate my own experience of being afraid before going to my first protest," Cramer says. "It was a Black Lives Matter rally in Union Square and I just remember being worried about the most naive stuff like, is the subway going to stop at Union Square if this is going on? Will shops be open? There's this weird expectation that you're supposed to be this perfect social justice warrior the minute you decide to be active. I wanted to express the fears that come with that."
None of the characters in the show are safe from snark: the earnest activists and the over-the-top villain (indie theatre vet David Greenspan who plays Landlorde) are given the same sarcastic treatment. Cute Activist isn't really a call to arms. Cramer believes the most valuable thing his play can do at this tumultuous time in our country is encourage introspection, regardless of your level of civic engagement. "The way I made my writing political was to share the worst and most despicable thoughts and feelings that I've had, like I would rather stay home and drink wine than go to this protest," he says. "I think it's powerful to point the accusing finger at oneself. I don't know if this play is what we need right now, but it's what I have to offer. I hope that it prompts some reevaluation, but I also hope people can find the joy and delight in this story."
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Top image: David Greenspan and Madeline Wise in Cute Activist. Photos by Maria Baranova.
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