By Susan Glaspell and Marita Bonner; Directed by Aimee Todoroff and Tonya Pinkins
Produced by American Bard Theater Company and Cheri Wicks
Off Off Broadway, Short Plays Revival
Runs through 3.5.17
Gloria Maddox Theatre, 151 West 26th Street
by Charlotte Arnoux on 3.1.17
Mel House and Cheri Wicks in Trifles. Photo by Basil Rodericks.
BOTTOM LINE: A presentation of three plays by women: Trifles and The People by Susan Glaspell and Exit: An Illusion by Marita Bonner.
Visionary Voices: 2 Women Writers—3 Big Stories is an evening of plays written by two women that takes the audience into early 20th-century history, from the Harlem Renaissance to the women’s suffrage movement. Through savvy direction and design, this hour of theater passes quickly and hits on some relevant topics.
Trifles is a short murder-mystery play in which Mrs. Hale (Cheri Wicks) and Mrs. Peters (Mel House) accompany their husbands and a detective to the house of Mr. and Mrs. Wright. Mrs. Wright has been accused of brutally killing her husband, and the men have come to the scene of the crime in an attempt to uncover her motive. As they rummage around upstairs and in the back room, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are left in the unkempt kitchen and tasked with gathering Mrs. Wright’s things to bring to her as she is being interrogated. Through their careful investigations of so-called "trifles" such as Mrs. Wright’s ruined preserves, the dirty rag hanging by the door, an empty bird cage and an unfinished quilt, Glaspell beautifully illustrates the importance of the female voice and uncovers the dangers of silencing the oppressed.
In this production of a depressingly timely piece, director Aimee Todoroff does more than bring forth the early feminist themes of this play. She finds nuances in her staging that are welcome to anyone familiar with Glaspell’s work. For example, the ever-present sound of the footsteps of the men, as they disarrange the already messy house, is a subtle yet vital addition: it makes their effort of “trying to get her house to turn against her” disquieting, and the empathetic actions of the two women in the kitchen that much more heartwarming. Matthew Fischer’s sound design is stellar. However, the true standouts for Trifles have to be its two leads. Cheri Wicks' and Mel House’s interpretation of what, on paper, may read as very straightforward is breathtaking. In particular, Wicks unearths a depth of emotion that makes the entire hour-long production worth seeing. Hers is a rare and disquieting talent.
The second piece is Exit: An Illusion, by Marita Bonner, directed by Tonya Pinkins. The one-act play focuses on Dot and Buddy—an African American couple whose different skin tones (Dot is fairer and Buddy darker) are at the center of the play’s actions. Dot (played by Morgan McGuire) is "fixin’ to go out passing": she’s scheduled a date with a white friend and powdered her face so as to conceal her ethnicity. Buddy (played by T. Thompson) is enraged by this act, and by the fact that she is seeing another man. Their fight escalates into a violent brawl and concludes in a dark twist.
Bonner’s play is decades ahead of its time—not only in its content (black identity, colorism, rejection of black heritage)—but more strikingly in its form. Her inclusion of surrealism as a means to share Dot and Buddy’s struggles is fascinating, though slightly jarring in contrast to the previous very realistic Trifles. Pinkins’ direction is effective and moody, though perhaps the constraints of doing three plays in one hour led to some rushed moments that would have benefited from room to land and breathe. McGuire and Thompson are well cast and do not hold back, though the realism necessary to make such a dark play shine was slightly lacking.
The third piece is The People, which, like Trifles, is by Glaspell and directed by Todoroff. In this piece of political theater, it is 1917 and we are at the ramshackle offices of The People, a radical leftist paper. "Votes for Women" posters hang on the wall and a typewriter sits with a blank page. We quickly learn that The People will be closing its doors as its editor, Edward Willis (played with charisma by Arthur Aulisi), has lost all inspiration. Through his interaction with the quirky, tropic characters that either work in or barge into his office—the out-of-luck poet, the gregarious artist, the boy from Georgia, the man from the Cape, the woman from Idaho, the philosopher—Willis finds the will to go on. Of the three pieces, The People sticks out as the most dated. Though it would be easy to make a connection to Women’s Marches and the current political climate, the piece doesn’t quite work. Its language lacks the subtlety of the other two plays and feels spoon-fed: "If you move others will move. Come! Now. Before the sun goes down."
Three plays combine to make Visionary Voices a very ambitious, smartly designed evening of theater—a platform for the 20th-century female experience that rings true still today.
(Visionary Voices plays at the Gloria Maddox Theatre, 151 West 26th Street, 7th floor, through March 5, 2017. The running time is one hour with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8. Tickets are $18, $15 for students and seniors and are available at americanbard.org.)
Visionary Voices is by Susan Glaspell and Marita Bonner. Directed by Aimee Todoroff and Tonya Pinkins. Costume Design by Nancy Nichols. Set Design by Raphael Zhao Mingshuo. Lighting Design by Christopher Weston. Projection Design by Elizabeth Mak. Sound Design by Matthew Fischer. Stage Manager is Clarissa Marie Ligon.
The cast is Arthur Aulisi, Michael Birch, Carl Fisk, Sidiki Fofana, Erin Gilbreth, Chris Harcum, Mel House, Madeline Lovegrove, Morgan McGuire, Nihara Nichelle, T. Thompson, and Cheri Wicks.