A ‘Splendour’ not for beginners at the Aurora
By Lily Janiak, SF Chronicle, July 1st, 2017
Normally, when a play is defined by repetition, digression and palaver, the proper response is to head for the hills. That’s assuming that your playwright isn’t Abi Morgan. The British writer finds an incandescent glow and a thrumming subtext in banalities, which she breaks into fragments and reconstructs into a kind of endlessly expanding spiral, a set of themes and variations, or elaborations.
That’s also assuming you have hills you can head to.
Part of the point of Morgan’s “Splendour,” whose Bay Area premiere opened Thursday, June 29, at Aurora Theatre Company, is that there’s nowhere its four characters can go beyond the Art Deco mansion (the icily handsome set design is by Michael Locher) where Micheleine (Lorri Holt) lives with her husband, a leader in an unnamed country. In the snow outside, the rumbles and rockets of battle draw dangerously close, and anyway, photographer Kathryn (Denmo Ibrahim) and her translator Gilma (Sam Jackson) have a gig to shoot a portrait of Micheleine’s husband. But he keeps delaying his arrival, and the outsiders’ presence unsettles the already tizzy-prone hostess, so she calls in her slow but sweet friend Genevieve (Mia Tagano) as reinforcement.
That scene plays out again and again, restarted each time kleptomaniac Gilma shatters the vase she’s sneakily appraising. With each new go-round, Morgan divulges more and often conflicting information about characters, revealing as prisms women who at first might seem more two-dimensional.
Micheleine is no mere cloistered ornament with the ignorance of privilege. Her smarts, her cruelty, her restraint all bore deep, and in Holt’s rendering she is equally capable of vaulting into rage or guffaws or sobs at any moment, though she’s incapable of, say, answering the incessantly ringing phone.
Similarly, Gilma isn’t just a wartime opportunist. She has to touch things as other creatures have to reproduce, smudging or eating or stealing every object within reach. Yet in Jackson’s smart performance, she’s just as surprised or dismayed as everyone else is each time she gets caught, as if snapping back to consciousness. She knows the others underestimate her — her boxy clothes (designed by Fumiko Bielefeldt), her manners, her accent all suggest lowly enemy origins. But she draws inward satisfaction just from knowing she’s keener than everyone thinks she is.
Morgan’s tense dialogue lets flaws ripen in a way we don’t often see in female characters in theater. They’re allowed to annoy not just each other but also us a little. That makes us share in the entrapment until one of many monologues, set off from the rest of the action, reestablishes the burning righteousness of each conflicting perspective. Morgan’s view here is both deep focus and wide-angle, simultaneously considering the levels of consciousness, home and globe.
Still, under the direction of Barbara Damashek, much in this tangle of resentments and backstory remains opaque. Morgan withholds so much for so long, about what’s keeping the husband, what’s happening outside and how bad it is, and why Genevieve and Micheleine hesitate even with shared giggles, that you’ll probably be tempted to give up more than once.
But if not all the rewards of this advanced-level challenge emerge right away, one point remains clear. As the battles of our own time and place escalate, our downfall is as likely to come from our failures to connect, listen and reckon as it is from violence.
Splendour: Written by Abi Morgan. Directed by Barbara Damashek. Through July 23. One hour, 40 minutes. $32-$65. Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 843-4822.