Los Angeles Theater Review: WHAT OF THE NIGHT? (The Vagrancy at Studio/Stage)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 25, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

WHAT INDEED

The title of María Irene Fornés’ 1989 quartet of one-acts recalls a two-verse Old Testament passage in Isaiah. The wandering Jews cry out from the midst of war, famine, every calamity: “What of the night?”, i.e. “What are our prospects?” The prophet returns: “The morning cometh, and also the night” – things will get dark eventually. They always do. As prophecies go, it’s a no-brainer, but it has the advantage of being short.

Linn Bjørnland and Tad Shafer

Fornés lacks the brevity of the King James version, examining the fifty-year diaspora of an extended family broken up by the Great Depression. But the writer has poetry galore when she unleashes it, primarily in the third section (“Lust”), where everybody talks in magical parables and behaves in an absurdist, allegorical dream state. Layered and inventive in its depiction of a woman damaged by two ruthless capitalists (her cold father and repressed husband), it’s the only piece of the evening that could conceivably stand alone and make sense.

Joseph Culliton, Elitia Daniels, Madison Huckaby

“Lust” is positioned, though, among “Nadine,” “Springtime” and “Hunger,” more realistic, less developed movements in this awkward symphony. The first two, and the fourth, though not independently coherent, are thematically related by the degradations of financial poverty; the first three by the impact of spiritual poverty as well, upon our sexuality and our souls. There are moments of power and wisdom, and a fine throughline of aching loss. It’s just the sort of writing that earns a Pulitzer nod (as this one did) for good intentions and artistic integrity. It does not pander. Neither does it unify sufficiently to provide catharsis. There is a fair amount of sexual exploitation, some nudity, lots of defilement and failed passion and dreams deferred, in many many scenes that feel truncated, like snapshots of a melodrama the author was too off-off-Broadway to condescend to flesh out.

Alex Marshall-Brown, Akimi Yamanaka and Tad Shafer.

It might be an impossible show to arrange harmoniously. Director Caitlin Hart and producer Sabina Ptasznik at any rate have not quite done it. This production is subtitled, or catch-phrased, “A Play about Money,” which doesn’t completely embrace the show’s themes. Rarely in two hours did I feel emotionally connected to the action. This is partly because although she directs moments with workmanlike tact, Hart does not allow Fornés’ pile-up of brief scenes to flow. Instead scene changes become the show’s most conspicuous physical event. Hart reduces many transitions to a light bump and a sound cue, but even this gets to be tedious, and undercuts the action. She certainly gets great work out of her designers – Matt Richter’s lighting creates a remarkable number of attractive looks and locales, making up for a lot of evidently scant resources in the production. Traci LaDue’s costumes are particularly helpful, perfectly definite, character-extending, dream-logical.

Akimi Yamanaka

The cast, not uniformly experienced, often seems to be in different plays at the same time; dialects and speech patterns can be iffy; pop songs sung to evoke period are performed in a much later idiom. The little inefficiencies add up over time. And most of the eleven actors are dissipated via multiple small, not very interesting parts, and have little to invest in. They’re all committed and largely competent. Lisa Jai, Elitia Daniels, Linn Bjørnland and Thaddeus Shafer each spends enough time in one role to shine; each is trained and talented enough to embody the essential spirit of the larger work. Their work is exemplary, as is the gesture of a seven-year-old company like The Vagrancy attacking a script this ambitious and problematic. An artist who wants to keep getting better has to believe she can do the impossible.

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photos by Wendy Figueroa

What of the Night?
The Vagrancy
Studio/Stage, 520 North Western Ave. in Hollywood
scheduled to end on November 2, 2014
for tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets
for more info, visit www.TheVagrancy.com

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