Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
The beautifully written script by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is equally beautifully directed for Actors Studio 66 by guest director Dodie Montgomery. Jacobs-Jenkins captures how the often-toxic nature of ambition strips humanity from the best of us, and Montgomery renders all its crafty cruelty on stage at The Black Cat Theatre with confident aplomb.
The play opens with Ani (Clair Gardner) arriving at the office and slamming open and closed the printer to the majestic orchestral sounds of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 ("Gloria Patri"), from where, one can assume, the play got its name. The young intern (Miles Pellerano) is already there, tucked away in the corner listening to music on his headphones. Enter Dean (Nicholas Johnson), at least an hour late, the sadly hungover assistant to a low-level editor unseen for entire first act. Next to arrive is Kendra, a diva who relishes exposing and mocking others' vulnerabilities, played by Violet Jada. Catfights between Dean and Kendra begin almost immediately. They are hilarious, well-timed and perfectly align with each character, Dean pointing out that as a rich "Blasian girl" she is as privileged as a "straight white man." Later, Kendra denies being homophobic, saying "I totally have a gay brother!" As the racket escalates, Lorin (played by Jay Hobson), a co-worker from down the hall, comes in and begs them to keep the noise down. They do, temporarily, but then the cacophony begins again.
Soon afterward, it is discovered that a famous singer beloved of Kendra and Ani as teenagers has died from an overdose. Much to the intern's bemusement, they riotously break into song as the dead singer's recording plays on the radio. It's a very funny scene. The continual racket brings Lorin back–this time less reticent than before. Hobson does such a great job with his monologue that we too end up wondering why he checks facts with his degree in French. Dean, propped up with vitamin water and painkillers, and endlessly harangued by Kendra, has a secret script he hopes to publish. How Johnson, who also plays Devin later in the play, portrays his character's dedication to his job brings groans of horror from the audience–hilariously gross!
And then there's Ani–sweet and kind, who probably had a romantic entanglement with Dean at some stage (is this why Kendra hates him, I wonder?), vaguely wondering why, with a degree in IT, she is admin at this madhouse. Yet it is she who tags Gloria as an "emotional terrorist." Gardiner, with triple duty, morphs flawlessly into Sasha and Callie as the play progresses. I think Kendra, with her Gucci bag, Starbucks coffee, and acerbic tongue, is the most fun character to play, and Jada (who does double-duty as Jenna later) has a ball with her, even as she "rots away in culture." It is the intern, besieged and abused by some, who appears later as a young internet mogul, and amazes them all when he, after letting them know it's his last day, opines that working for a magazine, is only "OK."
The titular character, played by Joelle Yann, is seen very little, even though she forms the nucleus of this play's very unusual theme: who has the right to victimhood, to pain, to profit from the actions of others? And why, in the words of the director, are we destined to "go through various tragedies repeatedly"? Yann shows Gloria to be a very sympathetic character, dowdy and friendless, who threw a party (where no one showed up) to celebrate her only promotion in 15 years, but who spent the evening "slicing lemons in the kitchen for no reason." Poor woman–there are probably millions of such people in the world, overlooked, underpaid, and ignored for years. Yet she alone transforms this hilarious cast of six into something akin to the feeling of suddenly encountering a grotesque car accident.
It is difficult to write about this play, this production, in my usual fashion, as doing so will deny you the jolt of surprise, the sudden change of direction experienced by the very appreciative audience on opening night. The seismic maneuver incorporated by the author transforms what, even if it were to continue along its assumed pathway of a funny, entertaining show, into a piece fully worthy of its status as a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
I realized while looking at the cast list that I knew none of them. Not one. In fact, except for a few of the production team, there was not a name I knew on the narrow strip of paper with a QR code that now constitutes a program almost everywhere (this is one "progressive" move I thoroughly dislike, but as nobody asked me, we're stuck with it). It transpires the reason for this is the cast have extraordinarily little stage experience–with at least one member never having trod the boards before. This alone elevates impressive performances from each one of them to an entirely different level. Well done to all, and kudos to director Montgomery for bringing out the best in this novice cast.
Quick shout-out to the production crew of stage manager Hector Corona, prop designer Ricky Fox, costumer Jacob Dunlap, scenic designer Mary Rossman, scenic painter Linda Wilson, and lighting and sound designer Banx Tenorio, and also to the running crew team of Maurreen Skowran and Andrew Winrow.
Gloria runs through June 11th at Black Cat Cultural Center, 3011 Monte Vista NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available at the door and at actorsstudio66.org.