I first met Gus Schulenburg as an intern in his department at Theatre Communications Group. I remember being impressed by his ability to make time for everyone, in spite of the mountain of work at his desk, as well as his multidimensional attention span. (I have still never seen anything like the constant, scrolling news alert system he had set up on his computer.)
Working with Gus, I learned about his theater company, Flux Theatre Ensemble, and soon became a regular patron of their work (tallying 8 events attended over the past 4.5 years). Although this article is about their latest production, World Builders, which ran April 29-May 13 at West End Theatre, a colorful gem perched atop the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, I would like to take a moment to express my endless gratitude for Gus’ mentorship.
Gus always takes the time to have a real conversation, no matter when or where I see him, and is always sure to ask about my writing. Now that I’ve more or less assumed the mantle of writer in my post-college life, this fact might seem unremarkable, but it was Gus who published my very first musings about theater on the TCG Circle blog. Those first years of finding my footing in New York, it was simply astounding to me that a successful, established adult remembered or noticed or cared to ask how my writing was going, much less took the time to truly listen to my response and offer sincere encouragement.
But back to World Builders, by the ever-talented Johnna Adams, directed and featuring stellar sound design by Kelly O’Donnell, starring Gus & Alisha Spielmann. World Builders neatly captures the Flux aesthetic: a company with a social conscience, comprised of people who remind you why you felt so comfortable with the theater kids in high school — passionate, genuine creators with big imaginations and even bigger hearts.
Flux invites their audiences in with the brilliant equity of the Living Ticket, and charms them to stay with their stirring narratives. Flux plays often have a supernatural or sci-fi element, which are genres that I generally avoid, but these stories keep one foot on the ground and poke enough fun at themselves for even die-hard realist audience members like myself to be swept up in the story.
Adams’ writing is smart and funny, quickly drawing us into the world of Max and Whitney, who have been convinced to participate in a clinical drug trial to treat (and potentially cure) their schizoid tendencies. We meet the characters before the play officially starts, watching them silently interact with their Interior Worlds as we settle into our seats. I could watch Spielmann in her invisible world all day, wrapped up in her infectious energy and expressive range of emotion.
The play offers an empathetic look at people with schizoid personality disorders, and the classic mental health struggle of losing parts of one’s identity — including Max and Whitney’s highly detailed interior worlds — when medicated to behave more “normally.” Listening to Max and Whitney describe their worlds, you can’t help but rue how little most adults use their imaginations, and feel the tender loss of all that creativity.
World Builders ran a little long, and I will admit that part of my brain, the part that has no patience for Holden Caulfield, would sometimes tell these two to just simmer down and take their damn pills already. But overall, it provides a delightful dip into the specificity of other people’s lives, trapped in a fishbowl clinic where we have the perfect opportunity to observe their every move.
I learned after seeing the show that the spark of this play was the reveal of Max’s objectively terrible interior schizoid world, where he watches women trapped in a bunker as they await their death, and Whitney’s compassionate response. This easy acceptance of people at face value works on a meta level, asking the audience to extend the same generous empathy to the characters that they show each other.
Gus’s performance captured Max’s severe awkwardness, intense emotion, and sweet lovability as only he could. His monologue about the woman who stayed the longest in the bunker was so raw it took my breath away. The act of listening, being audience to the transformation in each of these characters, began to feel like a bold choice in itself.
As Max and Whitney’s worlds slipped away, they began to discover “normal” emotions within themselves, including the ability to love. To fill the void left by their diminishing inner worlds, they started gravitating towards each other, as they had already become the keepers of each others’ secrets through divulging the details of their worlds.
The awkwardness of not having any practice in how to express romantic feelings as an adult provided tremendous comic relief in an otherwise dramatically serious situation. It also allowed the audience to root for Whitney and Max’s relationship, despite how complicated it would become outside of the highly monitored treatment center, where they plan to live alone together and let Whitney stop taking her pills. But for now, it’s springtime, and of course love should prevail.