Review: 'The Memory Of' at the Wilton Playshop & Lipstick Project

Melinda Zupaniotis

  • Connecticut Critic

An Open Letter to Rachel Schulte:

Almost a year ago, you posted a status on Facebook asking people to please stop telling you to “go to New York” to pursue a career on the professional stage.  Instead, you asked those people to consider that you are pursuing your artistic interests right where you are, wherever they may be at the given time.  With the recent production of The Memory Of, by The Lipstick Project at The Wilton Playshop, you have proven your words to be true…screamingly loud and clear.

To go a step further, your words meant everything since these were your words up there on the stage – you wrote the script!

Now, I know that the show is over, and that a “review” of a closed show can’t help with ticket sales, but I think it is important to acknowledge the existence of the piece, especially one that is still in development.  First of all, I commend The Wilton Playshop for giving you the space to mount a piece of new work.  While the frequency of readings and staged readings are growing in the area, it is still not common to see a fully-realized production of a new work on a mainstage.  Prior to this, The Carriage House Theatre has been a huge supporter of The Lipstick Project, welcoming you in and giving you the run of the house.  Kudos to these two theatres for knowing the importance of creation and encouraging the local talent to try something new.

While your set was minimal, it was certainly functional, and incorporating the video via the big-screen TV was a nice touch.  I could envision the video to have a different life in a larger production setting - projected video onto the backwall, perhaps?  Of course, that jukebox was out of place, but we do the best we can with what we have, right?  Ellie Mallardi’s basic lighting worked for the piece, giving us what we needed in the, no-doubt short, time-frame she had to design and write the cues. The sound was also simple, but inconsistent, with varying levels for both effects and video.  Some video featured wind-blown mics, some had muffled audio, but some were perfectly fine.  However, these are superficial details that could be ironed out in future incarnations, and did not detract too much from the show.  Costumes were a mixed bag, but mostly appropriate.  They looked as though each actor chose her/his own costume(s) from her/his own closet, and if so, some choices may have been a little questionable as they related to the characters. All in all, the technical aspects for a 3-show run of a new work were very good.

As for the creative team, I was impressed.  An audience never knows what to expect when seeing a new script by a local playwright.  More on that later (but don’t fret – it’s good).  Similarly, a director might feel intimidated approaching a new work.  She might worry about whether or not her interpretation and vision matched the playwright’s intention, especially since the playwright was an actor in the show, as well as a good friend.  From my observation at the closing performance on Saturday night, Jess Rodi approached the piece fearlessly, using the immense talent of the cast, as well as squeezing out every inch of potential in the playing space.  I can imagine that she asked the actors to make bold choices, while reigning in the blocking so that the words were heard over the action.  There were moments of stoic tension, like the standoff between Renee and Noah, and moments of child-like playfulness, especially centering around the bar, such as the time your character literally climbed over the bar and jumped into Noah’s arms, but I also loved the tender moment when Cassidy gently stroked Renee’s hair while Renee, curled up in fetal position, collapsed onto Cassidy’s lap.  The dynamics worked well, yet were seamlessly intertwined so that the levels were not blatantly obvious.  After the show, I curiously asked you if the script contained a lot of descriptive stage direction, and you said, “Not at all, that was all Jess.” I thought Ms. Rodi’s work was well-done.

Before I get back to talking about you, let’s discuss your fellow castmates.  The intensity between Renee and Noah was palpable, but it was also tempered with moments of humor and pangs of drama.  Noah’s character seems moderately fleshed out – he is a man trying to find his way as a writer, but can’t seem to figure out what he wants in his relationship with Renee.  Are they roommates?  Are they more?  Is there any way to go back once it is more?   Noah is played by Jeremy Funke, an AEA actor who is well-known on the local CT stage for being a strong leading man.  He definitely delivered in this piece, but I think I would have liked to have seen him go even further with the peaks and valleys of the relationship and his inner conundrum.  Kyle is Renee’s sister, played by another powerhouse actress, Julie Thaxter-Gourlay.  As someone who has been following Ms. Thaxter-Gourlay’s growth as an actress since her high school days, as well as having once directed her, I can say that there is no doubt that she brings all of herself to a role and then leaves it there on the stage.  She embodied the right amount of intensity and made most of the humor via perfect comic timing, without mugging.  Her character hails from London, and so had an English accent.  Ms. Thaxter-Gourlay’s accent was inconsistent, however, which was sometimes distracting and pulled me out of the moment.  The choice to have the character from England at all is one that I question, but I’ll mention that later on.  As for the other characters, Carmen (Justine Wiesinger), Tyler (John R. Smith, Jr.), Cassidy (Nicole DiBlasio), Emma (Jennifer Ju), and Deacon (John Schule), everyone did their jobs and added to the storyline, but nothing truly memorable stood out to me from the performances.  That said, as a whole, the cast worked well together and moved the play along.

So, let me get back to you, dear Rachel.  This requires a bit more of a 360 degree view, rather than some two dimensional comment.  You ARE an artist.  You play an artist in this show, but you ARE an artist.  Most local people know you as an amazing singer and actor in all of the musicals you have done in the area throughout your life.  I first saw you on stage as Fantine in Les Mis at Curtain Call’s SYT, and even back then, I knew you were one to watch.  Since graduating college, you’ve come back home and worked consistently on stage in show after show, knocking it out of the park each time.  Then you founded The Lipstick Project, an organization dedicated to using art as a means to raise money for pet projects supporting other women.  Then, you directed the first show for TLP.  Now you have written this play.  Also, though this production, I have seen you on-camera for the first time and can say that you look gorgeous on film.  In short, I am, by no means, surprised that you are good at all to which you set your mind, but I AM in awe of your accomplishments at such a young age.

Regarding your acting in The Memory Of:  you put it all out there, and it worked.  You held back nothing and you let every emotion in the words you spoke come through.  Your pace and delivery was spot on and I was enthralled to see what would happen to Renee.  While I usually look to give some constructive criticism in a performance, I honestly couldn’t find one acting note for you.  Great job!

Let’s talk about the script, itself:  Yes, it’s above and beyond most debut incarnations.   From a place of love, I ask, “Is it done?”  And from a place of love, I say, “No.”

The following are things I would like to see, but not necessarily things that should happen…

1.    I would love to see Parker at some point.   The lost love in another form – ghost? – in a way that would give Renee absolution and closure.  A conversation where she breaks off from him and resumes normal life.  Is it theatrically cliché?  Yes. But it is real?  Yes.

2.    I would love to see a different version of Kyle, where she’s not from England.  That was an ambiguous disconnect that added nothing to the show, in my opinion.  In fact, it distracted me from the plot.  She can still be a sister, but on the same playing field with different issues. The British thing, though I know close to your Anglophile heart, is not necessary.  

3.    The second act needs work.  It feels like an afterthought.  Like Into The Woods, the first act holds a story of its own.  My need to use the restroom before the first act was over was proof enough of an extended storyline , but Act 2 seemed forced and unnecessary, given the arch in Act 1.  Perhaps, splitting the acts in a different manner would add something to it and allow for the full story to be told without question.  Second acts are always hard for a playwright.

4.    Be cautious about the music you use and make sure that the proper licensing is acquired through ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.  They can be sticklers!

In all, the script was strong as an early incarnation, but I feel it could go further.  I know you want to push yourself as the ambitious woman that you are, so take my suggestions at face value and change what you want. I cannot wait to see where this play will go in the future!

The bottom line, Rachel, is that you are immensely talented, you attract talented people to your cause, and you have such a bright future.  Whether you go to New York or not, it doesn’t matter, because you will leave art in your trail no matter where you go.

I say all of this unbiasedly and lovingly.

Melinda Zupaniotis