In one fell swoop, seniors Sarah Ackerman, Andrew Agress, Jamie Semel and Sarah Steiker made their debuts as theater auteurs this past Thursday night with their respective senior theses. The culmination of their undergraduate theater education represented a bridge into the professional world, and all four presented distinct, promising artistic styles. Brandeis’s Laurie Theater hosted the festival, staging a cocktail of musical theater, sketch comedy and folklore to captivate and enthrall the audience.

Ackerman and Steiker’s collaborative piece “Work in Progress” started the festival off with song. Under the direction of Gabe Walker ’19, the show began with BT Montrym ’19 crooning “Razzle Dazzle” from the musical “Chicago,” setting a moody, hazy, theatrical tone for the play about addiction. Ackerman and Steiker handled the weighty subject matter thoughtfully. The first half of the play focused mainly on material addictions, like drugs and alcohol, but slowly the characters’ underlying addictions to relationships and to other people came more and more to light. The idea of a musical about addiction, for some, may at first seem confused, calling to mind visions of a sing-along adaptation of “Trainspotting.” But “Work in Progress” proved more cohesive a production than one might think; the song choices treated the characters with touching humanity and hope, rather than condemnation. And while at times the singers could have been louder in order to shine through over the live piano accompaniment, the cast (Montrym, Steiker, Ackerman, and Ben LoCascio ‘20) were all on pitch and embodied their characters effectively. “Work in Progress” ran smoothly and accomplished a challenging goal: presenting a heavy subject from a new, entertaining angle.

Thrumming with comedic energy, the sketch show “Taking Ages,” written by Andrew Agress and directed by Raphael Stigliano ’18, came next. Told from the perspective of a historian (Agress) 150 years in the future, “Taking Ages” explores over 600 years of misremembered human history. The versatile main cast of six (Haia Bchiri ’20, Zach Garrity ’20, Sara Kenney ’18, Jason Kwan ’20, Sarah Sharpe ’20 and Connor Wahrman ’17) brought energy and humor to a range of historical figures, including George Washington, Lewis and Clark, Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt. A keen attention to detail elevated the comedy of the show; Hitler’s teddy bear, for example, wore a tiny swastika armband, and the cast recreated the famous painting of Washington’s crew on the Delaware River so precisely that the audience could not stop laughing at the visual for a solid minute. Looking around the Laurie Theater, the audience simply could not stop smiling through this fast-paced, incisive critique of humankind in the past, present and future.

“Luna,” devised and written by Jamie Semel, capped off the festival’s opening night. The play tells the real story of Julia Butterfly Hill, who led an environmental movement by living at the top of an ancient redwood tree she called “Luna.” Evoking the style of old folktales, Semel’s script presented the forest and the trees as living beings with human relationships and feelings. The cast (Rachel Greene ’20, Margot Grubert ’17, Elana Kellner ’19, Kate Kesselman ’19, Rebecca Myers ’18 and Karina Wen ’20) alternated between multiple characters fluidly and provided the ambient sounds of the forest to create a more immersive natural world.

While “Taking Ages” and “Work in Progress” favored relatively minimalist sets, “Luna” constructed a forest world out of plastic bags, ladders and industrial equipment. Poignant and politically conscious, the play blended warmly old-fashioned storytelling tactics with modern issues to imbue the material with greater emotional gravity.

By Photo Courtesy of Mike Lovett

‘LUNA’: Jamie Semel’s ’17 thesis told the story of environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill through folktale.

Overall, the festival was a success and kept the audience entertained throughout all three shows. Ackerman, Agress, Semel and Steiker put their passions on stage and made truly strong impressions as part of the next generation of artists in the theater industry.