By Ben Willows
I have often cynically accused student theatre of being risk-averse. I can feel that plays are picked for name recognition over challenge, and student writing often earnest ramblings with no cohesive thought. The tech is an occasional change of lights; the acting, always commendable, always naturalistic. I accuse it of being, for lack of a better word, safe.
Foundations is anything but. Foundations silenced the most cynical parts of me. Foundations is radically, brilliantly, unsafe.
Above all else, the craftsmanship of the team behind it is on full display. From the worldbuilding of this sparse yet detailed dystopia where a young girl and a robot develop a forbidden friendship to the beautiful and meticulous hand-crafted puppets, Anna Bodrenkova and Aimee Dickenson should be deeply proud of what they have created. The lighting is a masterclass in precision, but even more precise is the sound design, and the physical theatre sections set to it. Barely a beat is out of sync with the actors.
All of said actors excelled in the physical sections, performing the inanities of factory life with a dancer’s dedication. Hannah Lydon provides some of the play’s initial moments of sweetness, before enjoying some moments of real threat. Charlie Culley, playing MJ, is at first presented as our protagonist, the human heart of the story we relate to. She does an excellent job at this, displaying curiosity and joy at the robot world before the authenticity of her support is called into question.
But in truth, almost illogically, it is the puppets we relate to the most. At first, I thought I would only be able to see the actors behind the puppets. But deftly, simply, Olivia Swain and Rory Gee imbued their characters with such emotion that by the end I had almost forgotten there were human operators, in an illusion akin to War Horse. Gee’s Bolts, initially pitch-perfect comic relief, begins to display a moving depth in his kindness and sadness. But it is Swain’s Pins that drives the story and steals the audience’s hearts. Indeed, the whole play is almost her coming-of-age story; initially sweetly curious, dancing for the simple joy of it, Pins slowly develops into understanding, defiance, and wisdom.
There are flaws, just as there are with professional productions. The actors struggled to project over the music at points, and some physical sections were too long for my taste. The plot itself is fairly simple, and I was a bit confused about the villain’s motivations. But ultimately, the plot mattered very little. It paled in comparison to the moments of stillness between MJ and Pots, the former describing the outside world, the latter lost in glee. It paled too in comparison to the relationship between Bolts and Pins, blossoming from a stern professional dynamic to one that was deeply emotional. Near the end, there are two scenes between Bolts and Pins that are genuinely, deeply, moving.
Foundations manages to feel both old, with its puppetry and steampunk, and wholly, necessarily, modern. It is a play deeply concerned with connection, touch, and joy. It feels wholly relevant to our time. It is, in a word, new.
Image: Wrong Tree Theatre Company