BWW Review: BRIGHT HALF LIFE at Actors' Shakespeare Project
Queer couples in the greater Boston area: if you are looking for a mushy, warm, romantic gay love story with a backbone and plenty of heartbreak that will make you want to cuddle up with your partner between now and Valentine's Day weekend, you couldn't do much better than Actors' Shakespeare Project's Bright Half Life, playing at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. (If you don't already have plans for the 14th, I recommend purchasing tickets to the 8 o'clock performance that evening, which should leave you enough time to get dinner at Buttermilk & Bourbon beforehand. The 65 minute run time leaves ample time for an ice cream at Picco afterward, while still allowing time to catch the T before it shuts down for the night.) When I saw the show, I did not have a significant other with whom I could cuddle (so if the aforementioned evening sounds like your idea of a good time, I'd be delighted to splurge and Dutch treat), but the audience was filled with visibly queer, femme-presenting couples holding each others' hands, snapping their fingers in agreement, and letting out an occasional 'awww' in moments of tenderness.
I confess, I cannot take a truly objective view of this piece. There is so little representation of queer relationships in our mainstream media that I go to a show like this rooting for it to be excellent. Perhaps Love, Simon is not an objectively groundbreaking work of cinema and maybe Red, White, & Royal Blue is not the best book to grace the New York Times Bestseller list last year, but I have a soft spot in my hardened heart for them and the way they present gay love. Bright Half Life is not the melodrama of The Children's Hour and it is certainly not the moral quandary of The Cake. Rather, it is an entirely unremarkable love story about two women who work together, fall in love, raise a family, get married, separate, and find their way to each other's lives again. Along the way, they do unremarkable things like ride on a ferris wheel, mourn the death of a parent, discuss the Challenger explosion, apply to jobs, get promotions, and other mundane tasks of the quotidian. The narrative is really only significant because it is about an interracial, queer romance. Were these two straight, white characters, Tanya Barfield's script might be merely as insignificant as the screenplay for the over-hyped Marriage Story. But how lovely it is to see queer people living unexceptional lives on stage! How magical and important it is for us to be able to see queer characters grow old!
The other saving grace of Barfield's play is the fragmented, non-linear way in which she sequences the scenes. The complicated snaps between past and present are augmented by sharply shifting lights and sounds straight from an AOL 'error' message, making Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years seem to play out with the narrative clarity of The Three Little Pigs. Without changing the scenery or costumes and with nary a hand prop in sight, Megan Sandberg-Zakian has directed a whirlwind jumble of a relationship that pits moments of tension against snapshots of lust or allows the audience to linger on the protagonists' happy memories before contrasting them against recollections of anger. Sandberg-Zakian's staging bares the text and leaves it vulnerable, uplifting its successes, but equally unearthing its shortcomings. It feels that this is the sort of experimental concept for a play in which the form takes precedent over the content, which I think is healthy for artists and theatre-goers to interact with from an educational perspective. However, it took until the very final sequence of the play for the disjointed form to really begin having the intended effect. In the waning moments, memories were juxtaposed against each other in a way that seemed intentional and purposeful. This left me with an ultimately balmy temperament for the curtain call. The majority of the piece feels like an unconventional attempt to make very ordinary dialogue feel new and special. Were the dialogue strung out in a linear narrative, no one would be producing this play. It has very little to say. So the question is, does the form make up for what the content lacks?
The dialogue itself trudges through the check list of necessities for contemporary plays: a gratuitous (if base level) educational analysis of race, repartee between two equally witty characters with indistinctly formed voices on a seemingly erroneous subject (is Pluto a planet?), and high speed nods toward every social justice issue from climate change to homophobia without any real perspective provided on any of them. Again, if the form fascinates you enough, all of these qualms with the content are superfluous.
The two actors who soldier through this marathon avoid the traps of letting the playwright's experiment become a laborious acting exercise. They are with each other in a palpably electric way from the moment they enter to their final exit, and there is a sense that there are equal parts art, craft, and athleticism at work in their performances. Neither gives a performance that is stronger than the sum of their characters together, an immaculate study of give-and-take. Kelly Chick plays Erica with suave charm and eccentrically animated features- her eyebrows and hands incessantly in learned variation. A few too many times, she seems to rely on unfounded shrieking in moments that could benefit from subtlety or a more textually supported choice, but ultimately she is lovably goofy and charismatic. Lyndsay Allyn Cox as Vicky is resolutely dynamic. Despite the ever-changing time periods the piece spans, there is an overarching sense of growth that Cox is able to convey. When we meet Vicky, she is evidently more composed and dignified than her partner. It is like a masterclass to observe how Cox navigates the challenges of humanizing an outwardly indomitable, perhaps even prickly character. She provides warmth and humor in a way that makes Vicky captivating.
Cristina Todesco's set may have effectively transformed the Plaza Theatre to look the most Instagram-worthy it ever has. A mass of lamps in every style imaginable cascades down the existing architecture of the space, alternately pulsating or glaring to define distinct locales in an effectively ever-changing backdrop. The immediate result is aesthetically pleasing, and the implications of the installation seem recurrent throughout the text. Bravo to prop master Steve Vieira for an admirable feat of working practicals acquisition (did the IRNEs ever give an award for Exceptional Working Practicals Acquisition?).
All in all, no flaw or imperfection with this script or production makes it unworthy of our time. Our world is exhausting. If you are able, go take a moment this winter to bask in a queer romance about two women striving to find what it means to be soulmates.
Bright Half Life runs through February 16 at the Plaza Theatre within the Boston Center for the Arts. More info here.