By Bob Evans
Drugs, prostitution, addictions, poverty, death, convictions–all add to problems within an outdated, under-funded, under-serviced, over-worked, under-supported justice system in Philadelphia where women become trapped as early as six or seven in a seemingly endless cycle of despair.
“Project Dawn” a rolling world premiere production that just opened Saturday, Jan. 27 at The Unicorn Theatre rips the mask off a city program targeted at getting women off the streets, clean, and away from the cycle that entrapped them. The show predominately deals with human trafficking, but the layers of the problem extend far beyond that simple term.
Karen Hartman’s new play aims at that issue, but maybe it’s too large of an issue for one two-act play. There is the story of addiction. There is the story of prostitution. There is the story of an over-worked court system. There is the issue of no funding. There is the issue of racial profiling. There is the issue of drug addiction. There is the issue of alcohol addiction. There is the story of physical abuse. There is the story of mental illness. There is the story of multiple cultures. There is the story of multiple religions. There is the story of family values and priorities. There is the story of the have and have nots. There is the story of limited facilities with overwhelming needs. There is the story of low self-esteem. There is the story of homelessness. There is the story of hunger. There is the story of multiple convictions. There is the story of hopelessness. There is the story of hope. There is the story of Project Dawn–a program hoping to tackle all of these issues and more. Quite simply, it’s too much story and characters for a two-act play.
“Project Dawn’s” outstanding and compelling story need attention, but the number of stories and situations overwhelm the audience. Characters change too often and some story lines lead nowhere. Like in real life, not all stories have happy endings and not all situations resolve in two hours. Yes, the situation is harrowing and more attention needs placed to help these victims. Drawing attention to the snarled web is paramount, but in a short span, presenting all this to an audience becomes overwhelming and sometimes confusing.
Heidi Van directs this piece with expertise. Melding all the aforementioned elements, characters, and stories allows her to work her magic to hold the piece together in a tight presentation. Her directing and casting created one of the strongest all female ensembles one could find, anywhere. The talent on the stage is mind-boggling. The women all have to portray several characters, which they do without flaw. The problem is that with so many characters, story lines blur as you jump from one story to the next and sometimes back again.
Each character has a focus, a story, and a situation of interest. Every character brings differing needs, which is certainly the case with such a project as “Project Dawn.” And while the audience does develop a relationship with all the characters, one gets the feeling that there is so much more than is presented.
At times, I found myself thinking I was judging a Forensics tournament round of Female Solo Dramatic Acting. The monologues seemed to be written to give students a 7-10 minute gut-wrenching piece they could present. I am sure that was not the point, but that’s where it took me. Yes, I thought the monologues were insightful, but far too long-winded. Yes, it was on topic. Yes, it was well-acted. Yes, the actresses were poised. Yes, the delivery was crisp and clear. Yes, they created a scene. Yes, they filled their time. Yes, their expressions and intonations created drama. Yes, they appealed to their audience. And the ongoing list of questions for a judge are all present and strong.
The casting brought the best of Kansas City actresses together on one set. Kathleen Warfel, Jennifer Mays, Nedra Dixon, Leah Swank-Miller, Lanette King, Amy Attaway, Vanessa Davis, deliver outstanding characters and command the action. With this stellar cast, expect to be entertained. There is no weakness among these ladies. Each character they portray gets to present her story and demand the audience’s attention.
While the acting is stellar, the court-room drama does not feel finished. Highs and lows, flow between scenes, and set design create an unevenness that leads to confusion at times. Perhaps the playwright intended to illustrate the complexity of the problem and the never-ending stories and situations. But, the play needs polish and some re-imagining.
Prostitution, I am sure, is a major problem in metropolitan cities, and, admittedly, I had not been exposed to it–especially in Kansas City. “Project Dawn” shines a light on the ugly side of life and where it leads. The problem grows; money and services to curtail it shrinks or does not exist at all.
“Project Dawn” continues through Feb. 18. Tickets may be purchased in person at the box office, by phone, or through The Unicorn website. The Unicorn tickets vary in price depending on the day, patron’s age, and possible group sales. Their special “Pay-what-you-can” specials are valid on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday performances. More details on that can be discussed with the box office.
Tags: The Unicorn Theatre, “Project Dawn”, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment