Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Photo: Kate Black-Spence and Nelson Rodriguez in WHAT OF THE NIGHT? (Ian McLaren)
Review: WHAT OF THE NIGHT?, Co-Produced by Cor Theatre and Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit
By Bec Willett
WHAT OF THE NIGHT? is a play that for both artist and audience requires intellectual and emotional commitment – an important and worthwhile one, but a commitment nonetheless. Through the journey of one family over a number of decades, María Irene Fornés’s epic explores the inescapable institutions of poverty and patriarchy. Running at almost three hours (including intermission), the four acts draw on and manipulate the stylistic conventions of post-WWI Western Theater, painting a grim but all-too-imaginable portrait of our world.
Many of the strongest moments of Cor Theatre’s and Stage Left’s co-production appropriately come from the women in the play. Helena, a Williams-esque woman of wealth, is trapped in a life of grasping and gas-lighting, passed on from her father to her husband like a pet. Kate Black-Spence’s performance is remarkable, avoiding what could be whining brittleness by consistently finding the humanity and humor in Helena’s fragility. She causes one to question whether her bouts of ‘insanity’ are more a result of nurture rather than nature. The second act – the strongest of the four – similarly examines the systemic oppression of women but this time from the perspective of two women in poverty. Greta (Allyce Torres) and Rainbow (Kathryn Acosta) are desperately trying to make their love survive Greta’s illness and Rainbow’s exploitative employment. It is in this act which Carlos Murillo’s directorial skill is exemplified. He uses simple everyday movements, tableaus, and items (a bed, a blanket, a chair, a coat) as motifs to mark the story of the women’s relationship. Accosta’s effusive performance interplays with Torres’ graceful movement and expert listening to draw you in, then devastates you with what can be the only conclusion for these lovers who are both in poverty and are women.
Cor’s commitment to produce work that is stylistically different from the norm is refreshing but challenging. Demonstrably experienced with the requirements of this play’s style, Stephen Loch and Nelson Rodriguez were able to emotionally and technically traverse the play with apparent ease. In contrast, some of the cast struggled to fully realize the nuances of the style, making some of the character portrayals decidedly one-note. Despite this, Murillo’s innate understanding and thorough direction created a scaffold to support these actors, elevating their performances and ensuring continual narrative momentum.
A play that spans multiple decades and locations also presents challenges that WHAT OF THE NIGHT?’s design team tackled with a strong, cohesive vision. Eleanor Kahn’s scenic design was cleverly functional, creating many locations and eras established through movable and multi-use pieces. Her use of an array of materials, muted colors, and textures was supported and sculpted by the subtle but meaningful gestures of Eric Vigo’s lighting. Together these were highly effective in creating mood and reminding us of the overarching theme of overwhelming poverty. These locations, eras, and themes were further delineated and highlighted by Brenda Winstead’s costume design, and Jeffrey Levin’s beautifully textured soundscapes and warped renditions of era-appropriate songs.
I believe that WHAT OF THE NIGHT? is the type of theater that is so important because it does require commitment. Not only a commitment of emotion, intellect, and time, but even more a commitment to grow as a society of people and as a community of theater-makers. I encourage you to make that commitment.