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Why Do You Feel Anger? sparks an array of reactions
When Do You Feel Anger? had its world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky last year, it elicited intense yet mixed emotions. But playwright Mara Nelson-Greenberg and director Margot Bordelon always figured that would be the case. A tonally complex one-act about an empathy coach named Sofia trying to instill compassion in a trio of dysfunctional workers at a debt collection agency, the show ping-pongs between Ionesco-style humor and anguished outbursts of raw feeling as it examines the corrosive effects of living in a patriarchal society.
Do You Feel Anger? is now stirring up complicated reactions at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway. The production marks playwright Nelson-Greenberg's New York debut and, taking a cue from the subject matter, she and Bordelon have been listening closely to the wide range of responses the show elicits.
"It's an interesting challenge," says Nelson-Greenberg. "If an audience isn't on board, I mean, what an easy out just to say, 'It's on them.'" But that's not a philosophy she endorses. She's heard lots of terms used to describe her script -- "dark comedy," for example, and "absurdist satire" -- but what she's going for is not so easily categorized. "The thing we're aiming for is funny until it's not," she says. "We've really been learning in this production how that tone shifts. People stop laughing at really different points in the play. Sometimes they laugh all the way through to the end, sometimes they never laugh at all."
Director Bordelon admits she's approaching the play "from a different angle" for this production, describing the Humana staging as "more stylized" and "broader" than what New York audiences are seeing. "We're trying to naturalize this weird world a bit more," she explains. "It has been a process of being really careful about what feedback to accept. It's a challenge for us to continue to articulate what story it is we're trying to tell and what questions specifically we're trying to ask."
Empathy is, of course, a key item in the stage artist's toolbox. "You go to theatre school, you are trained in the art of emotion," says Bordelon with a touch of wryness. (For the record, she attended the Yale School of Drama, while Nelson-Greenberg is currently pursuing her MFA in playwriting at the University of California San Diego.) However, the idea for this play actually came from the world of medicine. Nelson-Greenberg's mother is a doctor, and her sister is studying to become one. When they mentioned empathy is taught in med school, her interest was immediately piqued. She began researching the field of empathy coaching, and came across a brochure online that "felt so theatrical to me, it just felt so right for the stage," she recalls. In fact, actual exercises from that booklet are part of her script.
Much of the plot of Do You Feel Anger? centers on Sofia's efforts to teach a group of strangers how to read emotions while maintaining her own emotional equilibrium, shaky as it may be. Where's the line between acknowledging a colleague's -- or your audience's -- feelings and honoring your own? That query is at the heart of the play. "In our world, we normalize so many things that are really pretty disturbing when you look closely at them," Nelson-Greenberg says. "Everyone is a part of this terrible, toxic culture; everyone ends up playing their own twisted role in it."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Do You Feel Anger?. Go here to browse our current offers.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Tiffany Villarin and Megan Hill in Do You Feel Anger?. Photos by Carol Rosegg.