No Refund Theatre Presents: ‘A House Full Of Letters’
This week, No Refund Theatre (NRT) continued its fall slate of shows with a presentation of “A House Full of Letters.” Students can take in a showing beginning Thursday, November 16, to Saturday, November 18.
The play was written by Kit Steinkellner and won the National Student Playwriting Award in the American College Theatre Festival in 2008. Director Jacob Malizio was excited to revisit the play since so much has changed since 2008, and he aimed to highlight the parallels from “A House Full of Letter’s” dystopian future that may not be so far away.
“A House Full of Letters” takes place in the 112th Precinct of the Re-United States of America, a small town located on the Gulf Coast. The few residents there are either third-class citizens or the exiled who live in hardship and desperation. High winds send chills through thin walls, the rate of mortality is high with the contagious “winter sickness,” and a chief informant officer of the precinct keeps a watchful eye on the community.
Two third-class sisters run the local general store. The stern and watchful widow Dania cares for July, her gentle and compassionate younger sister. Outside of soggy apples and nails for coffins, the shop boasts less-than-desirable inventory.
“[Dania] is multifaceted and has a lot to bring to the table. It was fun to explore all aspects of that,” Ash Russo, who plays Dania, said.
Life is gloomy and painful, but it’s all in the name of “Brother Salvation,” the creator who gave the 112th Precinct its country. Third-class citizens are told they’re crucial to the development of the Re-United States of America. They farm the land and just about nothing else, with vacations and cars unheard of and illiteracy of the utmost importance.
July hopes to switch classes, the Re-United States’ equivalent of the American Dream. Her sunny disposition and radiant beauty improve her odds in the class-switch raffle, but of thousands of applicants, just one boy and one girl are chosen and given the opportunity to attend “academy.” Here, they learn to serve in the Capital City for a more improved, bureaucratic life.
Dania and July live in a monotonous routine: run the general store, patch holes in their dilapidated home, and pray for July’s chance at a class switch.
Enter Bastian, a “criminal of the highest degree,” who nearly evaded public execution for knowing the right people. Delivery boy and admirer of July, Nico, found Bastian “close to dead,” on the side of the road during a delivery to Dania’s store.
Bastian is strange, immediately clashing with the distrustful Dania and drawing awe from the curious July. He speaks oddly, with big words and impolite manners, offering to shake hands instead of announcing, “Welcome to the New Day.” He tells stories of a world before the chaos, that the Re-United States wasn’t created by Brother Salvation. He speaks of giant creatures, humans living in caves, and a history of wars and revolutions.
These ideas flip the sisters’ lives upside down, shattering the perception of their merciful government. Is there a better life outside of this depressing existence? One of new shoes, succulent fruit, and a vast library accessible to every citizen? Is it even worth going if July is chosen to attend academy?
“A House Full of Letters” is a love letter to dystopian fiction. With some scenes, the show holds an ominous mirror to the United States’ current state of political turbulence like a cautionary tale. In its two-hour run-time and two-act structure, the performance portrays class systems, government control, and hope in a time where goodness is frowned upon.
“I’d say a [theme] is to be appreciative of what you have,” Adam Tinkelman, portrayer of Bastian, said. “The people around you, before you know it, they might just blink out of your life, and you’ll never know when.”
The show’s strength comes in its world-building. Despite the fictional setting, the script grips the audience, treating them like intelligent observers and implementing a new dialect for the third-class citizen characters. Setting descriptions in the show come up naturally in the dialogue. The dialect is almost broken English, adding an extra layer of depth to the environment of showing and not telling.
“It was a challenge at first because it’s very unnatural. We don’t really talk like [that], but we treated it almost like Shakespeare,” director Malizio said.
The chemistry between the performers is captivating and their commitment to their roles is incredible. July, played by Thea Piskorski, and Russo had multiple scenes involving screaming and intense tears. Despite the heavy subject matter, the script also calls for instances of dark humor, which the entire cast delivered with excellent comedic timing and rhythm.
It’s important to add that with the heavy subject matter, there is a trigger warning for mentions of suicide, domestic violence, gun violence, and blood.
Malizio is excited for the opening performance, citing his talented “dream cast” and passion for the story.
“It’s such a good plot,” Malizio said. “You’re on the edge of your seat the entire time. The characters are so well developed. It’s just such a wonderful story, and I’m so glad that people get to see it.”
Folks can catch performances of “A House Full of Letters” at 9 p.m. on Thursday, November 16, and 8 p.m. on November 17 and 18, in Forum 111. As always, admission to the showings is completely free.
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About the Author
The Nittany Lions will face an added challenge bouncing back from a loss with new playcallers this weekend.
The Nittany Lions haven’t won in Ann Arbor since 2019.
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