Review: “A Bright Room Called Day” (Spartan Theatre Company)

A Bright Room Called Day, presented by Spartan Theatre Company. Alexandra Gonzalez and Amanda de la Guardia. Photo by Justine Albert.
A Bright Room Called Day, presented by Spartan Theatre Company. Alexandra Gonzalez and Amanda de la Guardia. Photo by Justine Albert.

Show: A Bright Room Called Day

Company: Spartan Theatre Company

Venue: CIC Theatre

Die Roll: 9

A Bright Room Called Day is one of the earlier works of Tony Kushner, who is probably best known for his epic meditation on AIDS and its impact in Angels in America Parts I & II. As in Angels, this play juxtaposes a real-time storyline with interruptive commentary  – this time in the form of a paranoid young American woman in 1982 who finds herself living in the same apartment inhabited by the characters of the earlier time. And thus, the plot:

In 1932 Berlin, Agnes (Amanda de la Guardia) and her bohemian friends watch as Hitler and the Nazi party move to take over the country. All of them have a strong, left-leaning opposition to the Nazis, but they seems to spend more time arguing the merits of their various ideologies than actively resisting the Nazi takeover. Added into the mix are Die Alt, a ghostly figure that challenges Agnes to confront one possible future; a pair of communists who commission Agnes to come up with a pro-Red puppet show that denounces Hitler; the Devil; and lastly, the ’80s American.

First off, it’s a talky, talky show. Whenever the gang is all gathered, you can be sure that at least two of them will take turns expostulating on their chosen politics to the group. While it’s interesting in its own right – you can’t fault Kushner as a writer, he knows how to turn a phrase – it’s also tends to bring the show to a screeching halt. These are highly complex arguments, and, unfortunately, the poor actors saddled with this rhetoric are pretty much overwhelmed by it. This includes Zillah (Jaci Kleinfeld), our paranoid young lady in 1982, who somehow draws parallels between the rise of Reagan and the rise of Hitler…and this is where the show lost me. I just don’t see the connection.  Hence,  Zillah devolved into a wackjob conspiracy theorist, and I ended up enduring her rants rather than listening to them.  Mr. Kushner also has to take “credit”for this – although I do commend him for his attempt. It just doesn’t work. At all.

There were some enjoyable moments, a lot of them due to an engaging performance by Amanda de la Guardia as Agnes, our protagonist. Agnes is possibly the only sympathetic character in the play – an effervescent actress only interested in politics insofar as it can earn her her next gig. She decides to help out the local communist sect by creating a hilarious puppet show depicting the triumph of communism over Hitler – a great little detour of cheeky rebellion. But, as with most of her friends, Agnes is willing to talk the talk but not walk the walk. In fact, she doesn’t make decisions at all – except perhaps the decision to wait out the Nazi regime.

Some of her coterie do make choices – Paulinka (Alexandra Gonzalez), a fellow actress, catches the Nazi propaganda machine’s eye and quickly rises to the top of her career – which she suddenly abandons at the end of the play to take refuge in Moscow. Other characters get beat up or chased out of town, until suddenly, Agnes is alone – exactly the thing she feared.

I like that Spartan espouses minimalist theatre, and this show works all right in CIC Theatre’s space. The play is wholly set in Agnes’s living room: a sofa, a wardrobe, a table and four chairs, and a side table. The actors fill the space without overcrowding it. Entrances and exits used the door leading into the theater and a curtained-off backstage area. Transitions were covered by the projection of silent-movie-style slides of various tidbits of history onto a screen above the window in the corner of the set.  The transitions themselves, unfortunately, were needlessly long and clunky. This is a show that benefits from instant switches between scenes; in this instance, the concern seemed to be more about covering changes in the dark.

While I can’t recommend this particular production, I give props Spartan Theatre Company for not shying away from a difficult script. They’ve got ambition and they have talent. I’ll be interested to see what they do next.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Biting commentary on pre-war Berlin is buried in there, somewhere.

RATING:  d6 – “Has Some Merit”