BWW Review: RTW's Surreal THE VIOLET HOUR Subtly Colors The Future
Violet--The color and time of day named in T.S. Eliot's 1922 epic poem The Waste Land. This color permeates Renaissance Theaterworks (RTW) season ending production figuratively and literally in the Studio Theatre titled The Violet Hour. Directed by Artistic Director Suzan Fete, the comedy infused with a surrealist happening sets a scene in 1919, a few years after World War I and before the Great Depression. The story tantalizes audiences with the question that is prophecy, knowing the future, a gift or a curse? Richard Greenberg's 2003 Broadway play explores this dilemma and models the period's hope and optimism after "a war to end all wars," on characters referencing Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and chanteuse Josephine Baker. All celebrities who reached a zenith in their careers, and then ended their lives in some despair. When the audience sits in the theater watching from the 2017 perspective, what do they make of these questions, lives and future?
The play begins on April 1 in 1919, an April Fool's Day, when neophyte New York publisher John Pace Seavering and his neurotic assistant Gidger need to decide which book to publish first-one from his dear friend, Denis McCleary's novel, or the other manuscript of his much older, ebony skinned lover, Jesse Brewer. How will the one published book affect each of their lives in the future? At a talk back after one Wednesday weeknight performance, audiences discussed "how history and who presents or relates that history creates an interesting phenomena to how the event or era is eventually perceived."
When Seavering decides to make a decision on this first publication because his personal success depends on this choice, his assistant discovers a "machine" producing pages with reams of paper from a book published in the late 1900's. A book foretelling the future for his characters. These pages envision endings for these characters and also world events. Is the future frightening or worth knowing?
Neil Brookshire's brash and partially indecisive Seavering struggles with these dilemmas while David Flores gives a humorous and memorable performance as assistant Gidger, also trying to understand the consequences of their knowledge. The confident Marti Gobel connects immediately with glamour to Jessie Brewer in The Shadows of the inimitable Josephine Baker. As Seavering's older lover, Brookshire and Gobel share their secretive love affair with ease at this time when black/white couples were shunned and rarely to be seen, often forbidden and against the law.
Nicholas Harazin and Cara Johnston round out the cast portraying a couple in love from disparate social classes, Denis McCleary and Rosamund Plinth, supposedly modeled on the lives of the literary Fitzgeralds. Their romance and impending marriage depends on McCleary's friend Seavering publishing a book to impress Rosamund's father. While each character attempts to determine a future filled with happiness, the surreal machine prints pages detailing their actual lives in the coming years, which undoes Seavering and Gidger. How much of these secrets they now know do they divulge to their friends?
Steve Barnes sets the stage in a small New York office that complements Jason Orlenko's period costume designs that complements Noele Stollmack's lighting design. Fete mines the comic humor in these events intertwined with the future's melancholy through skilled balance creating an interesting juxtaposition of drama and laughter. The characters' upcoming "Violet Hours" represents the time when the sun is setting and sky turns purple, an event symbolizing a sadness that has happened repeatedly. One wonders has this event, the sunset and sunrise, lost any meaning? Does this also relate to these characters? Will their lives and romances hold anything significant in the years ahead? Which book that Seavering publishes will matter the most to the world?
A sensual production throughout the two acts, RTW harkens back to the questions of how history changes dependent on its perspective, "the secrets known and unknown." Or does this violet hour and time speak to Eliot's muse at how little things actually change as time marches on, the rhythms of the universe inevitably set? Or will individual perspective shift life and the cultural viewpoint even when someone who's writing about the future was absent or only working on someone else's observations? Gidger explains through very funny dialogue how the word gay has changed in the years ahead as he reads the future: How unbelievable can this be if "gaiety" can disappear he mourns. He believes in 1919 to be gay means to be lighthearted in darkness. That statement alone proves how ironic history and one simple word can be. Is there truly no "gaiety" left in the 21st century?
RTW presents a provocative view of these timeless dilemmas in Greenberg's fascinating comedy shaded with a twist. How will this already seemingly "comic'" time in 2017 be perceived fifty years hence? Our perspective colors the future, as does Eliot's iconic poem, hinting things might remain ever melancholy over decades, similar to the actual violet hour in nature. When one examines Dickens again, also on stage also the Broadway Theater Center, will this era be perceived as the best of times or the worst of times? Check out RTW's fascinating, surrealist attempt at deciding what would someone do differently when the future becomes known. What might be in the future when anyone ponders their personal Violet Hour?
Renaissance Theaterworks presents The Violet Hour in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theater Center through April 30. Actors appearing in the photo, left to right: Gobel, Johnston, Harazin, and Flores. For information regarding Renaissance Theaterworks annual fundraiser, their Salon Soiree celebrating their upcoming 25th anniversary, or season tickets for 2017-2018 or ticket to the current performance, please call: 414.291.7800 or www.r-t-w.com