On Saturday, March 25, I had the pleasure of seeing Pleasant Destruction at Risley Theatre. The play, one of many that have been performed by both the PMA Department and the Cog Dog Theatre Troupe, was written by John Colie ’23, who also served as co-director alongside first-time director Jill Muszynski ’24. These two leaders, alongside their incredible cast, put on one of my favorite shows that I’ve ever seen at Cornell. As some long-time readers and/or contributors of the Sun might know, John Colie has been involved in theater production for the entirety of his time at Cornell. In the plays that I have seen in the past two years, Colie has assumed silly roles, thoughtful roles, excitable roles and extremely contemplative roles. As a man who’s seen and done it all here, there was only one thing left for him to do: say goodbye. And this wasn’t just a goodbye, but an absolute barn burner of a sendoff.
This show is in your face from start to finish. No, seriously, it opened with someone in the audience getting a T-shirt thrown at her face. In a show that is so dialogue heavy, the action truly never lets up. The plot follows four co-workers who decide to kill time waiting for nuclear armageddon by putting on a little play in their office together. The “play within the play” is essentially a fantasy situation of what they think might happen in a post-apocalyptic world, featuring murder, dismemberment and lots of Mad Max inspired outfits. One thing worth noting here is the effectiveness with which the set was used. Anyone who has ever performed in a black box theater such as Risley will tell you that there is not a lot of room to work with. Although set changes do occur, they are not the landscape transformations that occur on a large stage. I was impressed with how easy they made it to understand when the characters were acting as co-workers and when they were acting as post-apocalyptic survivors. This was accomplished by having a red light cast over the stage during the “play within the play,” with normal lights being used when they were just in their office. However, as the play progressed, the red lights were kept on even when they weren’t imagining, creating a blurred line between reality and fantasy.
This blurring of reality brings me to discuss the commentary in the play. Pleasant Destruction did not pull punches when it came to taking aim at politicians, people’s responses to lockdown and just the general concept of propaganda as a whole. However, I believe that it addressed these concerns in a much more nuanced way than CNN or Fox News has in the past three years. Although the political influence was clear in the dialogue, it never came across as preachy. It felt much more like an actual conversation with the audience than listening to people lecture to the American public ad nauseam from both sides of the aisle. Lockdown was a terrible mistake, we should all still be wearing masks: You’ve heard these arguments before. In a sense, this play felt unifying. The four wonderful actors, Max Garval ’24, Ruby Ricisak ’24, Bianca Santos-Declet ’23 and Samantha Sasaki ’23, all do a wonderful job of conveying the general frustration that we have all felt over the past three years. There was one line of dialogue that truly summarized the play for me. In a scene where Angelina (Ricisak ’24) is arguing with James (Garval ’24), she asks him, “Why do you even care so much about this stupid play if we’re all going to die anyway?” To which he replies, “Because it’s fun.” That is the essence of the play to me. It could be about terrifying destruction, overwhelming destruction or even sudden destruction, but instead, it is pleasant destruction, a name that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the play.
Similar to the show balancing serious topics in a lighthearted way, after attending a talkback after the show hosted by the Cog Dog Theatre Troupe and featuring Pleasant Destruction’s directors and cast, it became clear that the process of originating the show required the same type of balance between fun rehearsals and serious work.
The first to walk this fine line was Colie himself. While creating the show, Colie explained how he was initially inspired by questions of “how we use the environment” and the state of “America or the world in the near future,” resulting in him drafting scenes about people waiting out a nuclear event in a bunker. However, realizing the gravity of these scenes, he added the humorous framing device of the four characters working in a propaganda office, transitioning back and forth between their world and the theatrical world they are writing. In addition to his metatheatrical framing, which created different motifs for the production, Colie mentioned how he continued to flesh out the script by “stumbling upon stuff here and there that [he] thought would be funny,” such as traveling serial killers and community theatre quips. Santos-Declet, who is a friend of Colie’s, even offered an anecdote of her saying, “Oh, I love knives; can I get a knife?” at a wine night the two attended, inspiring one of play’s most laughed-at lines. As Colie aptly added, “That’s the nice thing. If you are writing an original production, you don’t have to get rights, so you can incorporate anything.”
Despite the creative freedom of originating a work, the cast and directors noted the limited resources that kept the production from being all fun and games. For instance, the swift month-and-a-half time frame allotted for script finalizations, auditions, callbacks and rehearsals made the process intensive for all involved in the production. Furthermore, relying on a tight budget and facing shipping delays caused the production team to depend on existing props, costumes and set pieces stored in Risley. Costume designer Colette Strathman ʼ24 faced anxiety-inducing circumstances when some of the pieces she ordered failed to arrive on time, prompting her to pull from Risley’s costume shop just hours before opening night. With limited time and resources, the cast, crew and directors had to think quickly and act succinctly, often improvising to successfully pull off the production.
Although the cast, crew and creative team had to overcome many obstacles in mounting Pleasant Destruction, they all seemed to connect through their shared love of theatre and admiration for the themes that Colie was bringing to the fore. For instance, Muszynski approached the piece because they “always wanted to direct something” and were fascinated by the play’s relevant themes. Muszynski even went as far as to say, “I feel as if we are not living in the best of times, but I believe this play puts humor into today’s events and makes us more capable of handling things.” Watching Pleasant Destruction in conjunction with the talkback on Saturday gave me the visceral sense that theatre is most impactful when it unites talented, passionate individuals to create work that, as Colie best stated, “makes something beautiful out of the wreckage,” resulting in everyday destruction growing a bit more bearable, a bit more pleasant.
Tom Sandford is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].
Emily Pugh is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].