Saturday, January 17, 2015

Review: A Truly Beautiful Day

If you ever thought your family’s holiday gatherings were nuts, wait until you see the folks of Kate Benson’s wildly flawless A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes. A typical Thanksgiving goes haywire as relatives unite on a day of thanks as history recurs in the present.
Presented like a high speed sporting event, including wickedly spot on play by play, A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes follows an average American family’s Thanksgiving from preparation to completion. Rather than offer a stereotypical family drama, playwright Kate Benson does the extraordinary and turns the family drama on its head, finding ingenuity in a high concept piece. Her characters lack ordinary names. The cast is a wonderfully diverse ensemble. There are no props or furniture. All of this allows Benson’s piece to be universal and accessible. Benson’s script on paper is merely a blueprint for possibility. Director Lee Sunday Evans lifts Benson’s words and breathes such life into it on stage. Evans takes great precision in her direction. She has taken great care and dedication as she guided her ensemble to victory. Evans has a Wes Anderson-like specificity that was vibrant, energetic, and stunning to watch. The theatrical vocabulary that Evans created was crisp and inventive. The brilliance that Evans adds to Benson’s wide-open script is nothing short of daring. Her attention to detail adds a wonderful layer to an already solid production.
photo courtesy of Heather Phelps-Lipton
Benson’s cornucopia of personalities that make up the family is a wonder to watch. The blend of generations is dynamic. As the host with the most, Brooke Ishibashi as Cheesecake gave a solid and grounded performance. Her array of personality shined depending on who she was interacting with. Her camaraderie with her sisters Cherry Pie and Trifle, played by the equally wonderful Alicia Simms and Nina Hellman respectively, was pure delight. Mia Katigbak as matriarch SnapDragon is true and comical in her physicality. Kristine Haruna Lee as the hazardous Gumbo brings an extraordinary sharpness to her character. Her sense of vulnerability shines through as her family gets down on her, but the moment she becomes the hero, her strength is astonishing and real. While the majority of the cast had a lot of physical work to explore, it was the pair of color commentators that seemed to have the most fun and hardest job. Hubert Point-DuJour and Ben Williams as the color commentators have a sensational report with one another. While you may not have been watching the dynamic duo at all time, their presence was alive, all thanks to their silky smooth vocals.
With a blank canvas to create Benson’s world, the design team brought an authentic and cohesive design. Sara C. Walsh’s 70s inspired set with wood galore was just what this athletic play needed. At first glance, the tape on the floor of the stage looked arbitrary, but with close attention, each color and shape defined specific movement by the company. Costume designer Kathleen Doyle did a solid job defining the generation gap between characters and allowing each individual to have their own personality through costume. If ever there is proof of the importance of sound design, it’s in this play. Brandon Wolcott’s brilliant design captured the spirit of the piece by incorporating stadium buzzers as replacements for various everyday items like doorbells and oven timers.
While the end is bound to pose an abundance of questions, the lead up is quite brilliant. A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes is a defining piece that proves theater doesn’t need to always fall into that cookie cutter mold to be great. Kate Benson has written a great play but it’s the top notch directing by Lee Sunday Evans that makes this play a celebration.