BRIGHT HALF LIFE: a part of The Cellar Series: This Beautiful Mess
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St., RVA 23219
Performances: February 17-24, 2018
Ticket Prices: Tickets $20
Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org
I would try to explain what this Cellar Series is about, but TheatreLAB Associate Artistic Director Katrinah Carol Lewis has already stated it so well: “This series takes the traditional love story – we meet, we fall, we fight, we figure it out, or we flee – and turns it inside out and upside down. These explorations of romantic relationship ask us to abandon our notions of time, space and reality to expose the true essence of our connections to each other. It’s beautiful and it’s messy and it’s ours: this beautiful mess.”
Bright Half Life, written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Melissa Rayford, is the first of three works in this series. A two-woman play performed without benefit of set or props (it uses the stripped bare apartment set of the space’s previous show, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) adorned simply with 9 black boxes that I’m sure I’ve seen on other stages in other productions.
Kylie M.J. Clark plays Erica and Amber Marie Martinez plays Vicky, two women involved in a decades-long relationship. It’s helpful to know this before the play starts, because once it begins, the actors and audience abandon all sense of linear time. This relationship unfolds emotionally, not chronologically. Lines and scenes are repeated, from different places and perspectives, and in the repetition, layers are peeled back, and lives revealed based on what has occurred since the last time we heard those words and phrases. In a way it is radical and messy, but on the other hand, it is a strangely accurate reflection of how many of us think.
The audience is seated on both sides of the set and limited seating brings the audience up close and right in the faces of the two characters. This allows us to see the fear on the face of Erica as she sits, white-knuckled, in the gondola of a ferris wheel or attempts sky-diving, all to please the more adventurous Vicky. Clark’s face is open and while sometimes we can read her like a book, it is a book with secret and untranslatable passages. Martinez brings authenticity to her role: while Vicky is obviously more adventurous than her partner, she is also more uptight. Years go by before she actually comes out to her Latino family; they refer to Erica as her “special friend” and helpfully pretend that she is a roommate helping Vicky care for their daughters.
There are several running themes, the most memorable being the sky diving scenes and the alphabet game the two women have developed. Sometimes it’s funny and other times it turns inward and cruel, as games sometimes do. A bell or other sound signals the rapid changes of time and scene and it is indeed fascinating to witness the clarity and speed with which both Clark and Martinez switch back and forth in time.
Dressed simply in contemporary casual clothing – although Erica’s shirt is a little more “butch” – there is nothing other than the dialogue to indicate time, place, or age, so we must rely on the skill of the actors. Both are successful because by the time we have followed their journey from first date to first and second marriage proposal to childbirth and divorce, the marriage of their daughter, and reconnection as an older, more traditional Vicky comes to terms with failing health, they have completely captured their audience, and their final leap was met with joy, relief, and perhaps not entirely dry eyes.
Rayford’s direction is seamless and natural with the able assistance of Michael Jarett’s lighting and Lucian Restivo’s sound design. What is less than satisfying is the probably intentional vagueness about exactly what kind of company the women work for, what Erica’s vocation is prior to starting her teaching career, and – to a much lesser extent – the nature of Vicky’s illness. Vicky’s Latino heritage is significant for her character, but I noticed that off-Broadway in New York the two women were black and white, rather than Latino and white, and I wonder if the script adjusts for these differences. Could one character be Asian and the other white – or some other ethnic combination – and how would that change the dynamics?
Bright Half Life – named for the scientific concept of the time it takes for a property, in this case love, to decrease by half – is part of the 2018 Acts of Faith Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival is a category for productions that do not meet all the criteria for the Acts of Faith Festival, perhaps because of a short run or a community rather than professional production company. At the time of this writing, only two performances remain (Friday and Saturday) and this is one heart-warming production you will not regret seeing.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.