Sunday, September 02, 2007

PLAY: FRINGE, "Lights Rise on Grace"

Five words, six years, three things. Three actors, three chairs, a series of light cues. But Chad Beckim's brilliant new play, Lights Rise on Grace is anything but by the numbers. Told through parallel monologues that evolve into fully fleshed scenes, Beckim uses the repetition of events and the shuffling of time and perspective to unify the three disparate roles into one. Along with Robert O'Hara's seamless direction, he transforms the spotlights into prisons and the actors into a contemporary urban chorus, catcalling disses from the background. This, while moving at a rapid pace that compresses three lives and ten years into a tight sixty minutes.

What I most admire about Beckim (and I said this once before about his play, 'nami) is that his appropriately named "Partial Comfort" productions has mastered the removal of "villains." This allows him to fairly paint Grace (Ali Ahn) as a sweet, innocent girl at the same time that she's a rebellious American to her Chinese parents, and to make her chaste, even when she talks about mindlessly fucking men on her back, on all fours, &c. It lets Large (Jaime Lincoln Smith) be a smooth-talking, street-smart Romeo, but allows him to keep the purity of that same Romeo. It allows him to feel real remorse at "untying the knot" and paralyzing his brother. It lets Riece (Alexander Alioto, more focussed and slick than in last year's Nelson) seduce and "corrupt" Large, while at the same time making him a genuine best friend; a good godfather, even if he's an ex-convict who killed a person or two. More than anything else, Beckim's plays allow us to truly sympathize with the characters, to understand situations that most of us will not encounter. It's a credit to the actors--especially the vulnerability of the deep voiced Smith--that we go so far as to believe those situations as well.

As for O'Hara, he directs with the same, smooth technique that won him an Obie for In the Continuum; here, as there, he allows darkness to play as walls, lets the characters define their own boundaries, and makes the most out of space, particularly when he compresses and pulls the trio together in silent commiseration. O'Hara understands that the theater doesn't need fancy gadgets and flashing lights; it just needs storytellers, and he's a master of accentuating the small nuances that tell more than any strobe light might ever imply.

Lights Rise on Grace is a simple story of the human heart, one that looks beyond race, sex, and orientation to remain true to that ever-pumping organ we all share. That is what makes it so compelling, and so beautiful.

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