BWW Previews: BRIGHT HALF LIFE at TheatreLAB: A Behind-the-Scenes Commentary
By Brent Deekens
Amid the ever-random fronts of varying warm and cold weather patterns, I was fortunate enough one recent, blustery evening to be invited by director Mess Rayford and her small but dexterous team of performers and technical aides to a preview-performance of the Cellar Series' latest theatrical outing, BRIGHT HALF LIFE.
Before "lights up," Rayford sat comfortably in-house, ready to take notes. Stage Manager Morgan Howard was busy checking over lights and sound within the technical perch in the rear tier. And I was solitarily stationed in the front row with a note pad and a bottle of water.
The stage configuration itself was simple: an intimate, blank stage save for nine black, rectangular cubes (no bigger than the average ottoman) stacked together to form a monolithic quadrilateral.
And shortly thereafter, the lights came up....
... And low and behold: I was treated to two of the most persuasive performances that I've viewed in recent memory. Stars Kylie Clark and Amber Marie Martinez seemed to effortlessly inhabit their characters in mind, body, and soul.
Clark and Martinez play lovers in Tanya Barfield's memory play that lasts from the years 1985 to 2031. And by "memory play" I mean that there is a steady torrent of dozens and dozens of cascading memories that plays itself out through a nonlinear narrative that never lets up until the end.
Lasting just a little over an hour, Vicky and Erica never once exit for a scene change; they themselves change perceptions, attitudes, ages, and cube settings (you'll see what I mean) when the time makes its unannounced shifts.
"We get to experience what life is like flashing before their eyes," Martinez remarked.
Martinez plays Vicky, a Latina workaholic who is content with being gay yet no less retains some self-conscious qualms, mostly out of her parent's lingering disapproval with her choice of lifestyle and companion.
Clark plays Erica, described by the author as the "soft butch." An often down-and-out English teacher, Erica makes for the more optimistic character. She's also the quirkier counterpart complete a crippling fear of heights.
The collegial interplay between Clark and Martinez was uncanny. One might have immediately inferred that they were old friends or had at least previously acted together before, but alas: this was their first show as scene partners.
"I had 'fan-girl' moment when I first auditioned with Amber for this," chuckled Clark, as she had last seen Martinez fantastically portray Abbie in Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS at the Firehouse Theatre.
(Side note: I had seen that show as well, so I had a somewhat comparable reaction when I was introduced to Ms. Martinez at The Cellar.)
Meanwhile, Ms. Clark is fresh off her own string of standout stories. She was last seen as Zora in Bo Wilson's FOOD, CLOTHING, AND SHELTER at the Firehouse Theatre. And the summer before, she got the spotlight's chance to polish off her acting and singing chops with her vivid portrayal of Mrs. Meers in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE at the Dogwood Dell. (#FaMillie.)
As for the rehearsals themselves, the four week scheduling process has been admittedly and unavoidably inconsistent due to the recent snowfalls. But to my judgment, such perceived shortcomings didn't seem apparent onstage; Clark and Martinez's work appeared to be seamless. They were also invariably supported by Ms. Howard's handling of the rapid-fast light and sound cues every time a new memory or "scene change" came into cognitive focus.
"It's the third character of the play," Clark observed.
The ambiguous memories themselves rocket through the highs and lows of any coupling which, given the decades that this relationship spans, inexorably extend into the realms of connubial arrangements, procreation, childrearing, separation, and even into mortality.
It was a lot to take in, to be sure; but the journey was worth it.
"My job," explained Rayford, "was not to look at [the play] like a 'front and back' timeline, but more like a supernova." An interesting analogy given that, in the play, Erica's oft-mentioned father is a science teacher specializing in astronomy.
Ms. Rayford herself returns to the stage after a brief hiatus, having last directed and co-written NERVE: STORIES OF QUEER RESILIENCE for the Virginia Anti-Violence Project in January of 2017. Despite this short absence, she hasn't lost her touch; she certainly seems to be doing right by her crew, the playwright, and her two sensational leading ladies.
Let's just hope the weather remains tranquil for this show's limited run!
BRIGHT HALF LIFE is part of TheatreLAB's "Cellar Series" in conjunction with the "Acts of Faith Fringe Season," as well as with the celebration of the Richmond Triangle Player's 25th Anniversary Season.
BRIGHT HALF LIFE has a limited run of six performances running from February 17th through the 24th.