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In our technologically driven world, are you keeping up? Is your Facebook profile up to date, are your Instagram pictures perfectly filtered, and are you an undeniable pro at crafting 280-character phrases? Or are you falling short?
On one end of the spectrum, our world is turning digital, and if you’re not keeping up you risk becoming irrelevant. Social media is turning into an essential marketing platform for businesses and personal brands — to not take advantage, some might say, is to cut yourself short. But on the other end of the spectrum, our increasing dependence on our screens is impacting the way we interact — how we present ourselves both in real life and online can prevent us from taking part in what is happening right in front of us.
This juxtaposition is explored in Cardinal Stage Company‘s next production, Sex with Strangers, which closely examines first impressions, online and real-life personas, intimacy, status, and the right to a past that doesn’t define your future. From playwright Laura Eason, who is also known for her work on Netflix, Sex with Strangers will come to Bloomington’s Ivy Tech John Waldron Auditorium from February 9 to February 25, directed by guest director Scott Weinstein.
Watch a video by Blueline about the production of ‘Sex with Strangers.’
Although Weinstein has never directed a show that has quite the same mix of sex, comedy, tension, and danger to it, he is excited to bring it to such an intimate space. “We’re using a thrust configuration, with audience on three sides, so no one is more than maybe 12 feet from the action,” he says. “You’ll really get to be a fly on the wall of this fascinating pairing.”
This two-person show is set around Olivia and Ethan who meet in a quaint Michigan bed and breakfast. Olivia, a novelist in her late 30s and discouraged by the reception of her first book, has turned to teaching for a living. She has no digital presence, and the poorly written online reviews of her book were her downfall. Ethan, 10 years younger, is wildly successful in his own writing endeavors — his success stemming from his blog, with the same title as the play, Sex with Strangers, which chronicles his sex-capades with women for a year. Ethan, unlike Olivia, leverages both the good and the bad online and is connected to his phone and a Wi-Fi signal like an IV drip keeping him alive.
Actor Brian Cowden, who plays Ethan, says two-person casts are certainly a challenge, but the payoff is that you get to really be alive and connect with the other person on stage, and the audience gets to feel like they’re getting to see something really private and special.
As Olivia and Ethan get to know each other by discussing their hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations as writers, they quickly realize that each one has what the other wants. Although Ethan is successful, he isn’t writing the material he wants and isn’t considered a serious writer. Olivia, on the other hand, is what you would consider a serious writer and writing what she wants but no one is reading it. Their attraction turns to intimacy and both characters struggle to decipher where, exactly, their attraction is rooted — is it love or just lust for what the other has?
Dr. Amanda Gesselman, a research scientist at the Kinsey Institute, says that although some may look at this play as an “opposites attract” scenario, she doesn’t quite see it that way. “I agree that the topics of their work are quite different, but they are both striving to be successful but serious artists,” she says. “A good bit of psychological research shows that when it comes to partnering, we tend to go for similarity, especially in our values and interests. Ethan and Olivia have hugely overlapping interests and both deeply value the art of writing, so from that perspective, it makes sense that they get together.”
As the pair delves deeper (not only in the sheets), Ethan offers to help Olivia rebrand her poorly marketed book and Olivia provides Ethan with her favorite literary novels. Their relationship becomes more tangled as Olivia reads Ethan’s blog and begins to question his motives for helping her — which brings into question how we conduct ourselves in our own relationships and the power sex has in our culture at large.
“Sex, and specifically the way it is wielded by those in power, is at the forefront of an important national conversation,” says Weinstein. “While none of the sex in the play is abusive in any sense of the word, both characters are certainly aware of the power it gives them.”
Actor Anne Bates, who plays Olivia, says in this world there is an important desire to be perceived as professionally powerful and to be taken seriously. In Sex with Strangers, the characters’ openness strays as they both seek power in their own ways.
“For people who have different personalities, but not quite opposite, they complement one another, and each partner can fill in for the other’s weaknesses,” says Gesselman. “Ethan’s more extroverted, assertive persona and Olivia’s more introspective and cautious personality provides balance and benefits to both.” But the show often teeters between this fine line of complementary and polar opposites — bringing to life the many dualities at play.
“I think we all have a little bit of both sides going on in our lives,” says Cowden. “I think in some ways this show will hold up a mirror to people and offer realizations about how much or how little the extremes apply to all of us.”
Cowden hopes that people walk away from this show realizing that real life is way more messy and nuanced than we see on television or film. Sex with Strangers showcases this by continuing to come back to the central theme of how we conduct ourselves — by means of watching screens, plugging in, and typing on tiny keys. Sexting, texting, streaming, online dating, social media followings — they all put into question just how we want to be portrayed online. How do we let that affect the work we put out into the world? And how do we form relationships that can last and thrive when even our most intimate interactions are often put on show for thousands?
Sex with Strangers explores all of these things, in a way that is subtle yet intimate, brash yet gentle, funny yet sensitive, and leaves the audience to examine their own lives and connect to the characters both in their strengths and in their flaws.
As Bates says, “Don’t we all long to be understood and empathized with?”
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