Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: A Slice of Life in Jackson Heights

Ever wonder what it would be like to see an entire community come to life on stage in a two hour span? (Or six hours if you see the trilogy.) The folks at Theatre 167 tasked a group of playwrights to do just that in Jackson Heights, Queens. The Jackson Heights Trilogy is a series of three plays that evoke the life and spirits of the titular neighborhood. Each piece focuses on a different aspect of the community. The first part, 167 Tongues, follows the various cultures of Jackson Heights in their daily life, through hardship and perseverance. The second part, You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, is more of a fantastical look at Jackson Heights told through folklore and stories in a fun little fairy tale. The final part, Jackson Heights 3AM, watches the denizens of Jackson Heights on one particular night from 11:00pm to 3:00am. Each part of the trilogy is written by a different group of writers and acted by a different group of actors, though some of the company appears in two or three of the pieces.
It’s a mammoth undertaking to put up a three part trilogy and the company of actors, especially those who do take a role in multiple stories, should be commended for this feat. The courageous ensemble had some wonderful performances led by Samuel T. Gaines, Indika Senanayake, Flor De Liz Perez, Andrew Guilarte, Kevin Hoffman, Orlando Rios, and J. Stephen Brantley, who also doubles as a writer. The 18 writers of the three projects did a wonderful job at making their unique voices heard yet being able to live cohesively as a single piece. Their individual characters they created were present but were able to live in the same world. This was aided by director Ari Laura Kreith’s ability to wonderfully curate the assortment of characters and writers. Though it would have been clearer and cleaner if the stories were able to intertwine a bit more, a stranger to this piece may not have been able to know that there were multiple voices in each play.
As far as the design world of the play, there was not much to be said positively. With that being said, the real highlight of the design was Carlo Nieva’s graffiti design. Unfortunately, it was positioned on the walls so you only saw the beauty when you walked into the theater and if you were able to catch a glimpse peripherally during the performance. James McSweeney’s set design was simple except for the giant wall unit in the back. For the first piece, 167 Tongues, it served it’s use as a masking that looked like a structure but for the other two plays, there were odd designs thrown on it that were more just a distraction. For these plays to actually live in the same world, a cohesive design would have been much stronger. This single design choice also had me wondering if these plays actually were a trilogy or three stand-alone plays. The other design that greatly suffered was Diana Duecker’s lights. It was clear that her system was limited, possibly due to the restraints of the theater, but she made the horrendously unfortunate choice to use fluorescents for certain scenes. Fluorescents and theater are generally not a good mix, especially when it completely washed out Max Ward’s projections.
Where design lacked, the trilogy was made up for in the epicness of the event. While you can see the plays as a whole, you could pick one and still get the sliver of Jackson Heights.