To Jess Kehler, David Chapman and Ken Keech–all students in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Dramatic Art–it’s a point of pride that the student-run Lab! Theatre is all about taking risks. Their repeated assertions that the company nurtures fledgling student directors and supports experimentation were borne out by Lab!’s recent production of Sedakaville, which ran Sept. 28-Oct. 2. If the preview performance was any indication, the Lab! Theatre not only entertains its audience, but also operates according to the philosophy that everyone present contributes to the training of playwrights, directors, producers and actors. The company’s commitment to learning by doing has fostered a palpable enthusiasm among the actors and crew, as evidenced by the excitement that animated the entire Elizabeth Price Kenan performance space.
Keech, a senior, wrote Sedakaville last spring, honed the play in the Studio 2 workshop for playwrights, and directed it this fall. He calls the work “an existentialist comedy.” An ambitious one-act, the 12 scenes of which correspond to songs on Neil Sedaka’s All-Time Greatest Hits album, the play reinterprets early ’60s bubble-gum blandness by ruminating on the sinister obsessions associated with a grown man who sings about Sweet Sixteen parties, angels, Alice in Wonderland and clowns. In the imagined suburb of Sedakaville, Christianity, psychiatry, and pop music form an unholy trinity while a hapless God is wheeled in on a platform flanked by Solid Gold dancers. A blend of Kevin Smith (Dogma) and Jean Paul Sartre (No Exit), the work juxtaposes pop culture’s celebrity worship and psychiatry’s reliance on medicated self-help with questions of faith and responsibility, but relies a bit too heavily on epithet-laden dialogue and blatant misogyny for comic effect and dramatic emphasis.
The cast was impressive, however, and the play’s opening dance sequence–a choreographic melange of Riverdance, aerobics, hip hop, Britney Spears, and the Rockettes–was inspired in concept and execution. True to Lab!’s mission, the play takes risks; most of them pay off.
In its 46th season, Lab! is the oldest student theater company at UNC. The students produce, direct, act in, and design a grueling 12 shows every year. Performances are held in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, next door to Historic PlayMakers Theatre, which is home to the professional Equity company on the UNC campus. According to Kehler and Chapman, proximity to PlayMakers has helped Lab! to achieve a greater level of visibility and to garner a following: Some devoted theatergoers attend every show that Lab! stages.
Like most of the students involved in Lab!, Kehler and Chapman are Dramatic Art majors and plan to pursue careers in theater. In addition to carrying a full load of courses, Kehler produces two Lab! shows a semester and is working on the crew for PlayMaker’s upcoming production of The Laramie Project. Chapman is directing Three Vanek Plays for Lab! and coordinates the company’s outreach activities. Given their dedication to Lab! and their status as full-time students, you might think they would look forward to finishing school, beginning their careers, and finally getting enough sleep. They don’t appear to be in any hurry, though. They seem to know that, odds are, they won’t have the autonomy, input, or freedom to experiment and learn in as supportive an environment as this one anytime soon.
Upcoming Lab! productions include Lanford Wilson’s HOT L Baltimore, October 5-9, directed by Brent e Smith, and Vaclav Havel’s Three Vanek Plays, October 12-16, directed by David Chapman. Admission to all performances is free. For more information go to www. unc.edu/student/orgs/lab.