Remembering Romance Under The Setting Sun in ‘The Glass Menagerie’

The premise of the well-known American drama The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams centers around single mother Amanda Wingfield, her oldest son Tom, and his little sister Laura who have found themselves in a financial squeeze since only Tom is able to work. Out of desperation, Amanda decides to try and set Laura up with a “gentleman caller,” a man from Tom’s work named Jim. What differs in this production is the centering of people of color and women in the casting of the play, a point of artistic pride for director Lisa Portes. Amanda and Laura’s predicament doesn’t come across as the result of a debutante who doesn’t believe women should toil, but rather a societal limitation imposed by the times (the play is set in St. Louis in 1937). This increased my empathy for these characters ten-fold.

The  Glass Menagerie is a play I read and loved, but quickly shelved because I didn’t want to get too attached a play in which I’d never be cast. This is why Lisa Portes’ direction of The Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes is so essential for children of color to see, and within the first five minutes I was envious of all the young people and students who will see this play and never question their place in it.

Tom, played by Bay Area legend and Campo Santo Co-Founder Sean San José, is the first character we see. As narrator and character, he is the crux for most of the movement in the play, master of this dream universe, and guides the moving furniture around the space. These movements increase in difficulty and attention as the play moves forward, which creates the feeling that this memory play and this family is only held together by Tom’s sheer effort. This made me pay attention to Raquelle Baretto’s costume design – they have put together easy to wear and move in pieces for the artists that are elegant and often striking. The opening design and staging of the play is a wonderful duet between costumes and lighting (Xavier Pierce) that lives in a moment beyond time. Baretto makes use of Laura’s affectionate nickname “Blue Roses” by dressing Laura in a sweet patterned dress covered in blue roses.

Sean San José’s gentle depiction of Tom creates a generosity of spirit this character is usually denied. This pays off when Tom breaks the menagerie animal, he finally becomes frustrated and dangerous in his ability to hurt the family. At particular risk in this play is his differently abled sister Laura, played by New York based poet and activist Phoebe Fico. Fico makes a striking and elegant stage debut as Laura, and we empathize with her at every turn. Laura is a character that I’ve usually seen played with a debilitated spirit, but Fico’s Laura is full of endearing smiles and sweet quips that make her moments of devastation hurt even more. Phoebe Fico sparkles in her acting debut, and deftly works the broad Cal Shakes stage with an inherent grace. I could tell it was her debut – if only because everyone else onstage is so seasoned – yet I found myself completely forgiving the absence of technical training in exchange for the genuine light that exudes from Fico. I support Cal Shakes’ decision to debut a new actress on an equity stage. A tradition of the past, it is incredibly rare to do so now, but the risk paid off tremendously.

Karen Aldridge gives a hilarious and warm tour de force of a performance as Amanda. When attempting to get Tom to bring home a gentleman caller, she hollers at him from the front porch as he traverses through the audience to get to work, eventually eliciting applause from the audience at the end of this scene on opening night. A particularly slick bit of directing from Lisa Portes and Aldridge’s animated demeanor gives life to a typically dull scene: Tom describing Jim, the gentleman caller to Amanda. Tom and Amanda move together to construct the full parlor including hanging windows and arranging the dining table during this exchange, giving it buoyancy.

The set, designed by Annie Smart, is bare and simple but surprisingly flexible. One of the most difficult things about the Cal Shakes space is how to define it. Each designer and director has to decide where the limits are for their world and build something to illustrate that, and though you can’t cover the forest landscape you can decide how to utilize it. In this design, a huge frame gives us the context of the home, and it worked in pulling my focus to the center. As it got dark I don’t particularly recall seeing the forest and even when it was visible it felt more like looking through a window. Rolling and hanging furniture is slid into place during the play, and the worst thing I have to say about it is that I was so struck by its compositional beauty I thought it was all a bit too nice for the financially challenged Wingfields. However, it’s a memory play, and who complains about things being unbelievably pretty?

As the set comes together and time marches on, the gentleman caller advances, and his entrance is beautifully highlighted by Brendan Aanes’ haunting sound effects. When we are thrust into this romantic memory by the arrival of Jim, the effervescent Rafael Jordan, a truly magical feat in the field of lighting is delivered by Xavier Pierce. He gives us parlor candlelight, despite the fact that we are outside and it’s dusk. It’s gradual and does not try to pretend that we are not outside, which makes it feel even more real once the light cue settles. I gasped, and everyone outside the show was talking about that visually stunning moment.

The Glass Menagerie is a stunning memory play and a must-see experience at the Cal Shakes Bruns Amphitheater. It runs through July 30th!

Tom: Sean San José
Amanda: Karen Aldridge
Laura: Phoebe Fico
Jim: Rafael Jordan

Director: Lisa Portes
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Dramaturg: Philippa Kelly
Stage Manager: Cheryle Honerlah
Asst. Stage Manager: Laxmi Kumaran
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Scenic Designer: Annie Smart
Costume Designer: Raquel Barreto
Sound Designer: Brendan Aanes
Casting Director: Clea Shapiro
Acting Coach: Margo Hall
Text, Vocal and Dialect Coach: Lynne Soffer

Photos: Kevin Berne

BIAS ALERT: This writer worked for Cal Shakes in various capacities including understudying, ending in 2016.

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

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Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe

‘We’re Gonna Die’ at Haven Theatre Electrifies Audiences

(Photo Credit: Austin D. Oie)

By Regina Victor

Before I embark on writing the review for We’re Gonna Die, written by Young Jean Lee and directed by Josh Sobel for Haven Theatre company, I have to explain the circumstances under which I am seeing and writing about this show. I am writing this review on the way home from my grandfather’s funeral. A few hours before opening curtain for We’re Gonna Die on May 7th, 2017, my grandfather died. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the show that evening.

I am so glad I got there.

When you first walk into the Den and take a left into the Bookspan Theatre occupied by Haven and named after Artistic Director Josh Sobel’s aunt, Janet Bookspan, you are greeted with the sweet scent of a smoky haze machine. The entry to the space is plastered with pop and punk posters, and as I left the antique stylings of the Den lobby I felt like I’d walked into an independent rock show. The audience has the option of sitting at low, cabaret-style tables and being right up on the action (as I chose to do), or sitting in the more traditional bleacher-style seating. No matter where you sit, you can see the faces of everyone watching the show with you, which seems like an intentional effort to support the intimacy of this play.

We’re Gonna Die is an ode to living and dying, guided by the Singer, Isa Arciniegas, whose alto voice is versatile enough to go from sweet ballad to angsty rock song. Isa captured the crowd with her stamina and ability within the first ten minutes, as she effortlessly got the audience on board for the cabaret-style of the show. She never lost confidence or momentum and moved deftly through the witty and emotional text, trusting that the audience was smart enough to keep up with her. It’s a crucial first ten minutes in a compact play, running under an hour and a half with no intermission.

The design world of We’re Gonna Die fused effortlessly with the text. The simple stage (set design by Mike Mroch) ) and punky costumes (Izuma Inaba) were effective, I couldn’t help but think of Rosie The Riveter when looking at the red bandanna and brunette ponytail on “lady-drummer Sarah [Giovanetti]” as Isa affectionately called her during the opening performance. The play’s title We’re Gonna Die is cleverly turned into a band logo (WGD) that is stitched into Isa’s jacket and displayed in neon lights behind them.  But the most notable aspect of the design was the lighting crafted by Claire Chrzan, who hung a multitude of household lamps  above our heads mixed in amongst stage lights, making  the lights themselves just as intriguing to look at as the stage they were lighting. The play consists of various stories from people’s lives, and I couldn’t help wondering if these lamps had sat in their living rooms and now lived again as homage to them and part of this show. I could have spent the show watching the lamps dim in and out, but the ensemble is too ferociously entertaining to allow it.

As a performer and musician myself, I know one of the hardest things in the world is to act and be in a band at the same time. In such intimate proximity to the audience, I was probably five feet away from the nearest musician, all the band members are closely watched and can’t fudge any notes or lose their cool. I have never been so impressed. Elle Walker’s poise while playing the keys and confident tosses of her long brunette hair during an exuberant and carefree dance solo ensure she grabs the spotlight at choice moments in the show. Jordan Harris possesses a beautiful singing voice, their solo moment is only one line but I was struck by the melodic tendencies of their voice. Last but certainly not least is Spencer Meeks’ beautifully messy eyeliner, and funky scene-stealing guitar solos. On the night I saw it, they also had a standout improvised moment about how their Green Goddess veggie drink was not the best choice for hydrating during a rock concert. I can happily report that hydrated or not, Spencer’s vocal talent as they harmonized on various songs was still excellent . Every person in the ensemble not only had great stand-out moments, they were serving every second of the show!

The twists and turns of Young Jean Lee’s emotional journey are best left unsaid so that you can be as delighted and devastated by them as I was. The show is compiled of true stories collected through interviews, and through their specificity they give the audience a place in each anecdote. One sentiment that I feel was perfectly captured here was the (dare I say the word?) millennial sense of being special, and deserving of immunity from tragedy, while also being perfectly aware of one’s imminent mortality. It is a reality in this new world that each of us is more empowered than we’ve ever been and simultaneously just as helpless to our mortality as ever.

Despite this feeling of millennial immortality, as the play says if you are a person there will be a day when you die. When your time comes, that is your time. Instead of being a depressing realization I found it galvanizing. My grandfather has 12 grandchildren while being an aeroengineer as a black man in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As sure as we are of death, we can also be sure that our full lives will affect those we leave behind, and that our stories will be told. I came to this show with the rawest open heart, and I left with a sense of how important life is, and how important it is to record the history of those lives and immortalize ourselves through art.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at We’re Gonna Die, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in a fun punk show about living and dying. The remarkable direction of Josh Sobel, artistic director of Haven Theatre, moves easily from deep tragedy to big joy (remember – I said dance sequence!!). Lucky for you, it’s been extended to June 10th, so be sure to get your tickets ASAP if you’re interested in this fun rock production!

http://haventheatrechicago.com/were-gonna-die/

Isa Arciniegas – SINGER

Spencer Meeks – GUITAR / BASS

Sarah Giovannetti – DRUMS

Jordan Harris – KEYBOARD

Elle Walker – KEYBOARD

Kamille Dawkins – SINGER u/s

 

PRODUCTION

Playwright – Young Jean Lee

Director – Josh Sobel

Music Director – Spencer Meeks

Scenic Design – Mike Mroch

Costume Design – Claire Chrzan

Sound Engineer – Archer Curry

Choreography – Jon Martinez

Production Management – Krista Mickelson

Stage Management – Julia Leghorn

Assistant Director – Abhi Shrestha

Assistant Production Manager – Corbin Paulino

Master Electrician – Cedar Larson

Technical Direction – Alan Weusthoff

Graphic Design – Jenifer Dorman

 

Production photos by Austin D. Oie