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BWW Review: ETTA & ELLA ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE at Round House Theatre

Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side is part of The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence play festival produced in association with McCarter Theatre Center.

BWW Review: ETTA & ELLA ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE at Round House Theatre

I wanted to like Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side. I really did. There are some fantastic dramatic elements to the story: sibling rivalry, love, loss, divorce, mystery, murder, and - of course - the incredible backdrop of New York's Upper West Side. The play, which premiered on Round House Theatre's site this weekend, is based on the narrative writer Adrienne Kennedy penned in 1999, "Sisters Etta and Ella."

But the Round House production commits the cardinal sin in storytelling, and I could practically hear every writing teacher screaming as I watched: "Don't tell, show." Round House opts to tell, and the audience is presented with a sparse stage, a desk with a phone, answering machine, and mug, and one actress - Caroline Clay, as Ella, our narrator - tasked with telling the entire tale while simply seated at the desk. Other than her entrance and exit, Clay's manner is consistent for the entire show - surely a feat of control, but a disappointing direction choice from Timothy Douglas.

BWW Review: ETTA & ELLA ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE at Round House Theatre
Caroline Clay as Ella in Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side

This stripped, dispassionate presentation is particularly frustrating because there are moments in which the story peeks through the delivery, and we get a glimmer of something fascinating - after all, Kennedy's story is packed with drama and intrigue. But it slips away just as quickly, largely due to the video's choppy editing. I understand that pandemic-era performances are difficult, but the edits, which often occurred mid-paragraph, were jarring and didn't feel functionally necessary, especially since they were joined by a series of numbers and rough stage directions that were only sometimes helpful and often distracting (what did "12" mean as it floated on the screen mid-sentence?). Some of the confusion certainly comes from how removed the storytelling itself is. The structure is Ella, presumably in her spectral form, telling the story of Harold Troupe, a professor researching and reminiscing about his old acquaintances and colleagues, Etta and Ella Harrison, sisters who were locked in a codependent rivalry - they wrote with and about each other, and shared their experiences and stories, but were constantly at battle with one another as well. The removal makes it difficult to keep the emotional connections to the story, to understand the fierceness of the sisters' tumultuous relationship, since we are shown it from an outsider's academic perspective - for, even though Troupe knew both women and seemed to have maintained a relationship with Etta following Ella's death, even his recollections are filtered through articles and interviews he reads about them. This disconnect also makes tangential characters feel even more detached, making it a mental task to remember who they were and why they were relevant.

I wish I had more positive things to say - I was so intrigued by the premise of the show, and its potential. And, to be fair, Round House did have the unfortunate luck to premiere a mere three days after an attempted coup live on television, so it's very likely that my own interpretation was simply muddled. But theatre should be able to provide an escape from as well as a mirror of society, and, sadly, there was nothing about this show that succeeded on that front. I'm curious about Etta and Ella's turbulent relationship, as well as their writings and experiences (They traveled! Etta had a husband who committed infanticide with their children! They were Black women who held prominent positions in the academic and writing circuits!), but that curiosity is born more out of frustration with this production than interest.

Round House Theatre's production of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side is streaming through February. Tickets are available on the Round House Theatre website for $17.50 per household. Content warning for mature themes and violent imagery. Run time is approximately 35 minutes.

Photos courtesy of Round House Theatre.


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