Glassheart

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

The evening began enchantingly. The audience was seated on four sides of a square playing area lit by stage lighting, so we could look across and see one another’s faces in that wonderful expectant caesura between life and art. As the lights lowered, a dancerly figure emerged—a petite woman who moved with transfixing grace and soundlessly transformed the space. As if through mimetic magnetic force, she summoned forth the several set pieces being wheeled onstage by two figures in dark overalls: a sofa, a wall unit with books, a door frame, a window. No words had yet been spoken, no special sound or lighting effects had been deployed, yet a marvelous new world had come into being before our eyes.

The performer who so silently had thus awakened and whetted my imagination was Lynette Rathnam. And in the brief promising moments of that prelude—which lent a hallucinatory aura to otherwise ordinary scene-setting—I witnessed Rathnam singlehandedly embody and evoke the illusory dimension known as magical realism, the theatrical esthetic for which Rorschach Theatre is rightly renowned. The company’s most recent such production, a stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (which I did not see), was hugely popular. A year ago its The Minotaur (which I fortunately did see) retold the ancient myth through magic realism inventively and entertainingly. So I was eager to see Rorschach Theatre’s newest such production, Reina Hardy’s Glassheart, a modern phantasmagorical retooling of the ancient fable of a beast in quest of a beauty to marry.

Unfortunately, once the play as written began, my heightened expectations began a slump that continued for the next two hours.

Before I explain that disappointed assessment, I quote—in fairness—from the squib about Hardy’s play on the Dramatists Guild website, because it provides a much more cogent story synopsis than I could come up with:

Beauty never showed up. After centuries under the curse, the Beast [played here by Andrew Keller] and his one remaining magical servant [Megan Reichelt] have moved into a shabby apartment near a 7-11, hoping for a lower cost of living and better luck with girls. Their building manager [the aforementioned Lynette Rathnam], a fellow immigrant with a taste for gingerbread and children, offers help in navigating this threatening, impossible, completely mundane world, but all her gifts come with a price. When an eligible maiden [Natalie Cutcher] moves into the second floor apartment, the servant (a relentlessly cheery lamp) colludes with the landlady to kidnap the girl. The servant finds herself assimilating the girl’s identity, her name, and bookstore job [becoming] increasingly human [while] the Beast becomes increasingly lost….

Co-Artistic Director Jenny McConnell Frederick (who co-produced the show with Randy Baker) told the audience at the opening night reception that she discovered Glassheart while reading through a pile of scripts for the Source Festival. So again, in fairness, I quote from the advance press release Frederick’s enthusiastic praise for the work:

Rorschach has always been driven to works that are both timeless and contemporary. Reina Hardy’s sharp, smart new play embodies that exciting duality. Starting with this ancient tale of a beast searching for his beauty, she explodes the archetypes as she places them in a contemporary urban landscape of grungy apartments, bookstore jobs and questionable landlords.  It’s there, in the space between now and always, that the play confronts universal human questions of love, fate and free-will.

Lee Liebeskind has ably directed the cast of four and elicited fine results from each of the designers—Robbie Hayes (those tellingly low-rent set pieces, which get wheeled about from scene to scene, as if the space itself is whirling), Veronica J. Lancaster (often eery sound), Lauren Cucarola (misleadingly ordinary costumes), Katie McCreary (ever shifting lighting), and Britney Mongold (appropriate props). Composers Aaron Bliden and Mark Halpern have contributed some striking incidental music and lovely songs that also fit the show’s real-yet-unreal circumstances well. The whole creative team did good work, and I commend them; it was solely the writing that I found problematic. As a result, both of the passages quoted above describe a much better play, and a far more illuminating and fulfilling theatergoing experience, than I got the other evening.

The character of the Beast as written (and this is not a reflection on Keller’s earnest and yeomanlike performance) is World’s Worst Boyfriend. We quickly get that he’s a failure as a pickup artist, but geez, it’s no wonder why: When not in his default mode as depressive and needy, he’s controlling and emotionally and physically abusive. I think I was supposed to notice smidgens of redemptive charm in the character now and then, but I’m afraid I would have had to be a desperate heterosexual female with Stockholm Syndrome to do so.

The character of the magical servant is a lamp (played as the script prescribes with incessant chirpiness by Reichelt, wearing a hat that lights up). But don’t think Lumière, the candelabra character in Disney’s musical Beauty and the Beast. Think desperate heterosexual female with a bulb so dim she has devoted herself to a domineering Beast she calls “Boss” in order to help him find an eligible beauty to wed. Not unless I were a rabidly misogynist men’s-rights extremist could I imagine any magical realism realm in which this character’s pathetic and abject subordination would hold appeal.

To be fair, there were many in the friend-filled audience who enjoyed Hardy’s script, as I inferred from their knowing laughs and chuckles. I however found the text laden with the the sort of non sequiturs that suggest a writer doesn’t really know where to go next or why but is going to fake it. The tone meandered and jumped about, never generating through sustained poetic language anything that might transport a listener into fresh headspace.  Moreover the text was wisecracky to no apparent dramatic purpose other than to gloss over the fact that not much humor was arising from character; it was mostly tacked-on schtick.

Notwithstanding the script, the evening did have a satisfying up side: Two actors in the show survived the parts provided them and turned in performances that had me thoroughly riveted. One of them, Lynette Rathnam, not only cast that choreographic/mimetic spell in the prelude; she brought to the role of the Beast’s landlady (who is also a Witch) a sure and astute sense of moment-to-moment truth and invention and showed off a talent I’d go out of my way to see onstage again. The other actor whose performance impressed me was Natalie Cutcher—in the weird role of Aiofe, the eligible-maiden neighbor from downstairs whom the lamp and the landlady ensnare for the Beast. (At one point, wondering aloud what the heck is going on, Aiofe conjectures that she’s being “sex trafficked”—which Hardy apparently intended as a joke.) Cutcher’s performance was a marvel of inner-emotional-reality ingenuity; from instant to instant she surprised me with inflections and insights into what she had me believing was a real character in surreal circumstances. Through the particularity and credibility of her performance, she created honest-to-gosh magical realism. Cutcher’s performance does this so brilliantly, you could not go wrong—if you go see Glassheart—if you never let her far out of your sight, for to the extent you focus on Cutcher, you might just glimpse the magical realm aspired to by both the playwright and this important company.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Glassheart plays through February 16, 2014 at Rorschach Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center — 1333 H Street NE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.

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