- OnStage North Carolina Critic
Nestled in the quaint little historic district of downtown Fayetteville, North Carolina are several theaters doing extraordinary work. For a town that seems to get a bum rap elsewhere in the country, there is much to see and do and this lovely area of Fayetteville. I’ll admit, I had my reservations about moving here. No one seemed to have a good thing to say about the city. However, since moving here in December I have fallen in love with it and discovered a thriving arts community that I am blessed to already have become a part of.
This past weekend, I went to see The Vagina Monologues, directed by Mr. Brian Adam Kline at the The Gilbert Theater. I’ll be working at the Gilbert this coming fall in their production of Steel Magnolias. So I wanted to see this show for my own entertainment, but also I must admit, to snoop on the quality of the production. I asked my girl friend to go along with me, since this didn’t seem like the kind of show my husband would enjoy. I was right. He actually thanked me for taking her instead of him when he heard what the subject matter was.
The stage and the set were very conducive to the show. The stage was set up very simply with the women sitting in an open circle, each on a different type of seat - one sat on the ground, one sat at a desk, one even sat on a toilet. Some seats seemed to have particular meaning to the woman who inhabited it, but others seemed to simply be whatever chair was available. The “narrator”, I will call her, had no seat however. She sashayed around the stage throughout the play, which I thought was a great choice directorially (more on that in a moment).
The upstage wall was a bit of a strange choice, in my opinion. In the center, framing the exit to backstage was red tule pulled back like curtains, coincidentally creating a… ahem… suggestive shape. Very appropriate and clever. To the left of the opening was a large stamp of the show’s trademark image - lipstick lips turned sideways, again very suggestive of female genitalia.
To the right of the opening, a projector projected slides periodically during the show. It wasn’t used all the time, only when questions were being asked by the narrator or when certain facts were being read by the particularly studious character who I assumed was meant to portray a schoolgirl-like innocence. The use of the projector was interesting. I’m not sure what the director wanted to accomplish by using it, but I thought it could have just as easily been done without. While it did help organize the conversations, I often forgot it was there and failed to pay attention to it even when it was used.
These three focal points were very random, but they were not distracting. The women were captivating enough to draw our attention to their words, rather than anything else on the stage. There were a few props, but mostly the set reflected the subject matter - dark, dirty, and very raw, which I loved. I can’t imagine doing this show any other way.
I don’t know Brian Adam Kline yet, but I hope to in the future. I felt he did a excellent job directing this show. You could tell how much work went into directing each of these monologues as though they were tiny plays within the play. And yet somehow, he managed to tie them all together as one at the same time. His choice to have all the women out onstage throughout the show and to have them interact with each other throughout each monologue was a great one. It showed that each woman did not stand alone in her story, which was a major theme of the play. At the end, he brought each woman downstage into a straight line as they said their final words. Seeing them all side by side, representative of the female population as a whole, wrapped up all 11+ monologues and figuratively tied them with a rough, imperfect bow. It was an extraordinary moment of power and strength, which is exactly what the script called for.
My favorite directorial choice, though, was one that I accidentally saw coming when I wasn’t supposed to. Seated in the audience was a man dressed as a woman portraying the transgender character that would close out Act One with a brilliant performance. Mr. Kline chose to seat him in the audience so that when his monologue began, all heads turned towards him shocked by his presence. (Isn’t that symbolic of the transgender population in our society?) Because it was a small audience, I had actually had seen him earlier sitting with his head down and arms folded across the aisle from me. I thought it was an older lady sleeping, and I thought, Why would you come here just to sleep? So in a way, I was surprised with everyone else when this “sleeping woman” turned out to be a transgender character in the show. Definitely not something I was expecting!
I loved the use of the narrator character who introduced some monologues and had several of her own. She was a dynamite actress who was so fun to watch onstage. Mr. Kline used that to his advantage, allowing her to float around the stage and interact with everyone as though she was the mother hen looking over her babies. Her fluidity and grace were amplified by the blocking which seemed very organic, giving her freedom to move about and then settle in one place while another character performed. And while she was lovely, she still embodied that raw, vulgar, brashness that the script contained. With her dancer-like grace and her obscene language and hand movements, she was Princess Grace meets Rosanne Barr. But then again ladies, aren’t we all?
Here is where I hesitate to get too critical, particularly because I don’t know the Gilbert Theater’s situation. I know they hold open auditions for most shows, but I don’t know the pool of actors they get at each audition or how big the community of actors is in Fayetteville. However, I will say this: the cast, for me, was split pretty evenly down the middle - 50/50 extraordinary and just okay.
Among the extraordinary were the gentleman I mentioned playing the transgender character, Matt Lamb, Liz Covington who delivered a comedic monologue that had me doubled over with laughter, and an actress whose name (I believe) is Deanna Robinson who delivered the gut-wrenching monologue as an abused young woman from Africa. I was blown away by their performances and I hope to be given the privilege of acting with them someday.
In defense of the “just okay” actors, the cast had an uphill battle with this particular performance. First of all, it was a Saturday afternoon matinee. This is very much a Friday night kind of show. So the tiny, Saturday afternoon crowd took quite a bit to get into the spirit. Our reactions were small and stifled, and our energy was low I’ll admit. But the cast as a whole gave it their all! They didn’t hold back when throwing words like “vagina” (and all its slangs) in our faces. Their energy was thankfully much greater than ours - and that was true of all 11 actors.
Also in their defense, I was under the impression that this entire show was a comedy with maybe a serious monologue or two at the end. However, this show deals with some harsh subject matter and dark topics. Going into it, I was ready to laugh. I was taken aback by the heaviness these young girls were thrusting upon me. While they were doing pretty good work, I was waiting to laugh, which is my fault for going in with expectations. Had I gone in with a more open mind, perhaps I would have found some of the performances more compelling rather than confusing.
Overall, the production was great work by some very talented people. Their performances stuck with me long after the show ended, which is of particular importance with a show like this. It is meant to leave a lasting impact and hopefully influence the way we feel about women, lesbians, transgenders, feminists, and the people who love them. I am thoroughly impressed by the Gilbert Theater and proud to be a part of their team!