Billie Holiday. Judy Garland. Amy Winehouse. The particulars change, but the contours are all too familiar: a talent is discovered, milked for all she’s worth, and then discarded. It’s a story that plays out again in Jim Cartwright’s 1992 The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, revived at the Gift Theatre. Thirty years later, a culture of disposability persists in the entertainment industry, as evidenced by this year’s historic WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and that disposability undeniably compounds with gender, race, class, and other minoritized identities.
Little Voice, known as LV to those around her, is a reluctant star. Played by a pitch-perfect Emjoy Gavino (one of the Gift’s three co-artistic directors), she hides in her bedroom from her alcoholic, neglectful mother, coping with her trauma by emulating classic songstresses with uncanny accuracy. Otherwise she utters only the faintest monosyllabic responses to the questions and injunctions of her mother, her mother’s sleazy boyfriend, and her own would-be lover.
Cartwright’s script explores the outer limits of language. LV’s mother, Mari Hoff, whose bombast is brought to life by Gift ensemble member Alexandra Main, is garrulous to the extreme, delivering monologue after monologue as if her very existence depends upon her continuous speech. Her boyfriend, aspiring talent manager Ray Say (Ben Veatch), and unctuous club owner Mr. Boo (Watson Swift), both have silver tongues. Even the supposedly laconic Billy (Gift ensemble member Martel Manning) woos LV with charming yet long-winded treatises about the light shows he dreams of producing. But it’s the nearly silent actors who steal the show, Gavino’s LV and Julia Rowley as Sadie May, their neighbor. (Though her dialogue consists primarily of the eked out, “okay,” Rowley mines a sugar canister for comedic gold, in a bit that keeps on giving.) The story takes off when Ray Say overhears LV mimicking a chanteuse and coerces her into performing at Mr. Boo’s club. It will make them—Say and Boo exclusively, of course—filthy rich. Emphasis on the filthy.
The production understands the script’s polarities. Under the assured direction of Devon de Mayo and Peter G. Andersen, the play careens between comedy and tragedy. It opens with a scream, a pratfall, and a blown fuse (the perfect set-up for the existential joke of the play—a joke that’s grimly unfunny once the punchline lands in Act 2). If at times the physical comedy feels slightly strained, well, the characters are also strained to their breaking points. Hannah Clark’s carefully decrepit set, strewn with tell-tale empties at the top of show, evokes the desperation of not only Mari and LV but everyone who crosses the threshold of their flat. A smattering of cabaret tables in the front of the house lay subtle groundwork for the thinning of the fourth wall when we enter the Mr. Boo’s club in the second half of the play. The set, along with kClare McKellaston’s pointedly gaudy costumes, help ground us in northern England in the early ‘90s.
LV’s fate is predetermined—her fall is prescribed by the play’s title—which gives her transformation and eventual peripety an almost Greek dimension. In her execution of LV’s prodigious gift, Gavino does something richer than ventriloquism. She channels her forebearers while giving the audience herself. Her haunting rendition of Edith Piaf’s “Non je ne regrette rien” presages the final moments of the play. No, I regret nothing, she belts, and in the end, I believe it.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, produced by The Gift Theatre, runs at The Filament Theatre through Oct. 13th.
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Cast: (in alphabetical order):
Ensemble members Emjoy Gavino (LV), Alexandra Main (Mari), and Martel Manning (Billy), with Julia Rowley (Sadie), Watson Swift (Mr. Boo), and Ben Veatch (Ray Say).
Jim Cartwright (Playwright)
Devon De Mayo & Peter G. Andersen (Directors)
Hannah Clark (Scenic Designer)
kClare McKelaston (Costume Designer)
Gabrielle Strong (Lighting Designer)
Forrest Gregor (Sound Designer)
Lily Anna Berman (Props Designer)
Adam Goldstein (Dialect Coach)
Jessie Oliver (Vocal Consultant)
David Preis* (Technical Director)
Jennifer Aparicio (Production Manager)
Sarah Luse* (Stage Manager)
Joe Mazza (Photography)