This weekend, a cast of about 40 energetic members transported the audience at Westco Café to the fictional town of Flanders in the year 1495, narrating a love story to songs from No Doubt’s album “Tragic Kingdom.”
“Tragikingdom” takes place exactly 500 years before the release of No Doubt’s album. Gabe Gordon ’15 recalled that the cusp between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance “seemed like the perfect place to set this fable of revolution.”
As it turns out, No Doubt and the group of medieval serfs in the show exude the same type of rebellious grunge, rendering the show a genius amalgamation of these two very distinct themes.
In this feudal world, the aptly named couple of Gwen and Stef are both part of a revolutionary group of serfs attempting to overthrow the monarchy. When Gwen is picked in a beauty contest to be the king’s new wife, she reluctantly enters the castle as a spy for the rebels. Gradually giving in to the luxuries of her new lifestyle, she abandons Stef and the other insurgents. The show culminates in a violent invasion of the castle during which Gwen accidentally stabs Stef (while both tragically belt “Don’t Speak”).
In an ending reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, the serfs and royals unite through tragedy and begin a new society, called Steftopia, based on equality and led by strong women. The band then broke into “Sunday Morning” and the show fluidly morphed into a concert.
“Tragikingdom” blended modern and medieval themes in smart, hilarious ways. They treated modern aspects of the show with a humorously medieval attitude, such as when Emilie Pass ’15 reminded the audience (in character) at the beginning to turn off phones so as not to “summon Satan.” At another point, the showed played with modern language in a pun about the term “keep it real.”
The costumes also reflected this bizarrely perfect combination of history and pop culture: Jacob Masters ’15 wore an MTV shirt with a large, colorful, knightly-looking skirt, and many of the rebellious serfs wore No Doubt-era black choker necklaces with their sack-like dresses.
The show also exhibited this self-awareness in their character of Bertrand, a Medieval Studies major played by Nico Hartman ’15 (who is actually a Medieval Studies major). He would periodically pop in through a door and correct various scenes according to his own education, proclaiming that a handmaiden would have never been present at the king’s wedding before being carried out by guards.
Creating the show was an incredibly collaborative process: Pass, Zia Grossman-Vendrillo ’15, Gordon, Sivan Battat ’15, and Masters represented a core group of leaders, but considered themselves general creators and collaborators. Cast members also contributed to the show, as the writers held open meetings that anyone could attend and would often refer to their actors for advice or suggestions.
“None of us ever felt like we were stepping on each other’s toes,” Grossman-Vendrillo said. “Everyone was able to assume leadership in a way that felt really natural and healthy.”
Reid Hildebrand ’15, a cast member who was able to contribute to the writing, called the process “democratic.” Cast members would often come up to the original writers with new ideas for certain lines or costumes, which were welcomed and often executed.
“We had really empowered actors who took ownership of their roles,” Pass said. “People were ready to take responsibility for knowing their part and making it special.”
Collaboration with cast members was possible because the show was written as it was being assembled. This active writing process translated into the performance’s unbelievable energy and passion.
“The show was living and breathing with us,” Battat said. “It was genuinely spontaneous, raw, present, and real, in a way that even really good theater isn’t.”
The creators called the show’s style of theater “reverse round,” which means that the audience sat in the center of the room while scenes took place at all corners. Audience members were completely immersed in the performance, as it took place all around us.
“We used Westco Café as Westco Café and didn’t try to turn it into something it wasn’t,” said set designer Cara Sunberg ’15. “Instead of putting up tapestries or hanging things to make it look like a castle, we used the graffiti of the wall to make it function as its own special space.”
This novel style allowed for a lot of effects that a formal stage would not have. For example, the royal castle and the serfs’ pub were intentionally physically separated at opposite corners of the room, highlighting their separation by distancing them in the farthest way that the space would allow.
The audience immersion was also a result of the show’s initial form, which was a lot closer to a concert than a musical. The creators wanted to maintain the feeling that the audience was part of a performance, as they would feel at a concert, and the live band, as well as the presence of the cast dancing around the entire audience, heightened that level of participation.
The creators, however, were careful to ensure that audience participation was minimally invasive.
“The worst part about immersive theater is when it can be abrasive and assaulting, and we wanted to have people feel engaged without making them feel physically uncomfortable,” Gordon said.
The show explored a myriad of culturally relevant themes in the midst of the ingenious humor and fun. For Hildebrand, it created a connection to the intricacies of what’s currently happening in Baltimore, Md.
“There is something resonant about [the show] in terms of uprising and class inequality, and resorting to unrest and violence as a mean to solution against systemized oppression,” Hildebrand said.
While its examination of rebellion and its relationship with love was the most obvious theme, the show’s message was not limited to this idea. It also contained subtle themes of feminism, justice, betrayal, trust, and a multitude of other topics.
The show considered these serious issues while dancing, singing, and creating a genuinely fun performance that was also contemplative and meaningful. Battat expressed her feelings about putting on a show during senior spring.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be doing anything else,” Battat said.