As a piece of ‘devised theatre’ (a play created through the collaboration of cast and crew), the strongest aspect of Tuesday Night Cafe’s (TNC) Based on a True Story is its natural and realistic performances. But this spontaneity is also a weakness: director Isaac Robinson’s production lacks a convincingly unified underlying message, resulting in a play that is more entertaining than enlightening. While Based on a True Story tends to oversimplify character dynamics, its fast-paced realism makes for an engaging and interesting show.
Robinson approached TNC with an idea for a play featuring semi-fictional characters based on his experience growing up with “street punks who dealt drugs, crazy tattoo artists, skin heads, [and] abusive cops who liked to chase kids with mohawks. I was having such trouble writing the show,” writes Robinson in his Director’s Note. “It was too close to home, too cathartic even.” So he let the cast and crew build the story themselves, through rehearsal and improvisation, to create a collaborative piece. The resulting story follows Danny, his live-in girlfriend Camille, and his best friend Stevie, through their experiences with drugs and encounters with the law. The precarious balance of their lives is disturbed following the arrest of Danny and, later on, Stevie. The play also follows the teens’ prosecutors, Officer Davis and Judge Parks.
The production’s pace is engagingly dynamic, with short scenes lasting only a few minutes. This ensures an almost perfectly smooth flow between the multiple overlapping narratives. The main fault of the production lies in its lack of an emotional grey area. The cast relies on instantaneous outbursts, frequently breaking into shouting matches, to convey powerful emotions. These over-the-top moments are less effective than the more powerful toned-down scenes, which hit a little closer to home. With the emotional middle ground missing, the piece has an occasionally jarring feel.
Cara Krisman as Stevie, Justin Lazarus as Danny, and Kim Drapack as Camille sometimes overreach their characters’ edginess, especially near the beginning. It takes a few scenes for the characters to develop beyond rebellious punk-kid stock figures, and only in the second act do they really take on multidimensionality. The resulting characters’ variety makes them believable, as their personal paths are intricately woven together in a vivid mimicry of real relationships.
Based on a True Story offers the classic villains-with-secret-personal-struggles narrative. Officer Davis’ background story is simple and effective, more so than Judge Parks’ cliché family ties to the street kids. Davis’ complex but relatable individuality comes across as a nuanced interpretation and deconstruction of an authority figure, as Ruderman manages to fold in issues of police brutality with Davis’ personal struggles. While he recounts a story of colleagues beaten with bricks by angry kids, it becomes increasingly clear that his duties on the beat leave him worn out, and his demotion to a desk job is a blessing in disguise.
“There is no wrong or right presented by this devised piece […] it shows only choices,” writes Robinson. But the ideas in Based on a True Story are perhaps more ambiguous than Robinson originally intended. The characters’ paths are shaped as much by outside events as they are by their own choices. Despite being too black-and-white at times, Based on a True Story manages to draw in the audience with its smooth pace, believable characters, and complex relationships. Robinson’s production, gripping and raw, is an entertaining embodiment of devised theatre’s ability to create naturalism onstage.