Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: A Text That Never Quite Takes Flight

By Michael Block

Sexual violence and abuse is a serious subject. Finding a way to bring awareness through art is not easy. Especially if it hits close to home. That being said, not every production with relevant themes does exactly what it sets out to do. Enter Phoenix Rising: Girls and the Secrets We Keep. Presented by Living Lotus Project, the play written and directed by Laura Gosheff, finds a group of young girls brought together by circumstance as they surrealistically tackle their past.
Phoenix Rising is one of those plays that has good intent yet manages to hammer in too many concepts and ideas that hurts the overall production. Laura Gosheff’s play follows five young girls, each with a dark history of violence in their past, as they encounter ways to find hope in their futures. Through meetings with their counselor Grace, the girls are lead on fantastical journeys that open their eyes to their situation. When we learn that one of their own has found herself in the fatal situation, you'd think that would be the inciting incident that informs the production but it's not. It's just a backdrop. To Gosheff’s credit, she tries to do something different than present a weighty drama that examines difficult issues. She explores a unique style of storytelling. It just sadly didn’t work the way you would have hoped. Phoenix Rising may have greatly benefitted from a separate directorial source as well as the desire for a dramaturgical eye, as there were many textual woes. For example, with continuity being key, the girls are shocked that their sessions are about to end as the school year concludes yet have a gift ready to give to Grace. It's the little things like this that call attention to the bigger mishaps of the text. To explore the surrealistic elements, Gosheff introduces a device where Grace opens a magical book where she monologues about a woman from history that coincides with each girls’ backstory. Gosheff also introduces a plot point where Grace offers each girl a card of an influential woman to keep on their person to help their spirits. The device and plot point do not line up as the woman on the card is not the woman of the story and it desperately wanted to be as it completely minimizes the importance of the cards. Had the cards reflected the person of the surreal dream world, Grace’s influence and control would have been even more powerful. When it comes to the text itself, Gosheff has a sing songy nature to her words that had shades of after school special. And that may be due to where in time the play is set. Being set in the 80s, Phoenix Rising finds itself vainly outdated, spotlighting the sad truth that even 20 years later, little has changed. And that's not the intent Gosheff strived for.
photo by Jana Marcus
From a character perspective, there's very little active growth as the action is retelling the past and coming to an understanding. To no fault of their own, the girls were sadly cartoons. Between the era costumes and the caricature dialogue, it was hard to ground the reality within the overblown bubble. The one person who did strike a nerve by capturing the intent of her character was the incomparable Kristen Vaughan as Grace. Vaughan was like an ethereal sorceress. Despite the silliness of the surreal, you forgave it because Vaughan was just that good. She spoke and you listened to every single word she said.
As a director, Laura Gosheff was strong in honoring the intent of her text. Gosheff was high on finding the nuances of storytelling. That came through the exploration of movement. With movement by Javier Baca, Gosheff and Baca’s collaboration was stimulating to say the least. When we entered the dream worlds, the lighting from Seth Reiser was glorious. The use of the footlights and wash of color truly defined the whimsical ideas Gosheff hoped for. It was a stark contrast to the harsh fluorescents in the sessions. Sheryl Liu had some factors to work around with her set. It was very basic and accomplished what it needed to do but the second tier on the playing space caused Gosheff to lose prime staging real estate. Sound designer Julian Evans was crucial to the specificity of Gosheff’s vision. And he succeeded. Evans and Reiser were in tune, marrying lights and sound well. Angela Harner did exactly what the script called for when dressing the ensemble. Gosheff prescribed influences and they were seen on stage. But that doesn’t minimize the ridiculousness of the period. Between the hair and colors, it was hard to take the situation seriously at times.
Phoenix Rising tried to be so much more than it could be. And that was its Achilles’ heel. You can’t fault Laura Gosheff for being ambitious but ambition can only get you so far if the product doesn't translate to the stage.