‘Seminar’ Offers a Revealing Look at Creativity and Criticism

The Unicorn is now presenting an abrasive and unsettling intellectual comedy called Seminar, which runs through Nov. 10. The show is about four college writing students who have hired a well-known writer/editor for an exclusive 10-week seminar to look at their work and make comments. As their weekly meetings commence, the characters scrutinize not only each other’s writing, but also each other’s lives. The play is an angry, funny and intelligent criticism of, well, criticism.
One important aspect of this show is that none of the characters is completely likable. They are all neurotic and self-centered in one way or another. Izzy (played by the always awesome Chioma Anyanwu) is a sexy young woman who isn’t afraid of using her feminine charm in her quest to be a successful writer. Martin (played by Logan Black) is a cynical, insecure young man who hides so much of himself that he doesn’t have a good grasp of reality. Douglas (played by Noah Whitmore) is a self-absorbed, pompous ass who gloats to the others about whatever minor success he has had. Kate (played by the adorable Courtney Salvage) is a whiny, depressed young woman with an upper-class guilt complex. And Leonard, the famous instructor (played by Robert Gibby Brand), is an addled, sexist, cocky windbag who uses his position as a weapon.
The script is richly composed, and it tightly weaves its themes of art, criticism, insecurity and ego. It manages to be both misogynistic and feminist. The play is about selling out the very nature of creativity. The characters are well-defined; their outward strength and bluster all belie a very common, human frailty.
This is a Unicorn show, so of course the acting is top-notch. There is not a weak actor here – and with a script like this one, a weak actor would be glaringly obvious. I must make special mention of two actors, however. Salvage’s portrayal of Kate is a wonderful combination of sarcastic energy and despondent self-doubt. Much of the show is set in Kate’s apartment, and she provides a subtle sense of being the gracious hostess even while she is unraveling on several levels.
I’ve seen Robert Brand on various stages in Kansas City, but I think this is the best role I’ve ever seen him in. He commands the stage. His vicious dialogue and arrogant body language feel utterly normal for him. I could believe that he really was an embittered author with multiple regrets and chips on his shoulder. It was an amazing performance.
This show demands a careful viewing. The dialogue is quick, witty and intelligent. The play is written by and for people with college educations, with a knowledge of academia and the endless nature of writing. It’s also subtle — what is said and done in one part of the show will be mirrored or enhanced in another part (often by a different character).
Although people interested in writing and literary criticism would obviously be attracted to this show, it’s about more than that. Seminar could have been about any number of creative activities. As the play winds through the many conflicts and conditions, it makes plain another fact of human nature – we’re all whores. In one way or another, being successful in our lives often means prostituting some of ourselves. We just have to agree on the price.

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