‘Splendour’ at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre: Remarkable, intriguing

By Emily S. Mendel, Berkeleyside, July 5th, 2017

L to r: Gilma (Sam Jackson), Micheleine (Lorri Holt), Genevieve (Mia Tagano), and Kathryn (Denmo Ibrahim) share a toast to the evening with chili vodka in Aurora Theatre Company’s Splendour. Photo: David Allen

Four women wait in a luxurious yet austere room in an unnamed eastern European city waiting for an important man who may never arrive. This is the premise of Splendour by the U.K.’s Abi Morgan (screenwriter of Suffragette and The Iron Lady), an intriguing glimpse into women’s relationships, the vagaries of language and the fragility of power and politics. While Spendour is definitively remarkable theatre, at times I didn’t understand the actions and inactions of the characters.

The play is set in the treasured palatial home of Michelene (Lorri Holt, The Aspern Papers), wife of a dictator. All appears calm and controlled at first, but the rumbling of gunshots betrays the likely reason for her husband’s absence. Extravagantly dressed in her jewels and zebra shoes and overtly composed, Michelene has imposed on her widowed “best friend” Genevieve (Mia Tagano) to join her as she waits for her long-delayed husband to arrive.

Michelene is trying to entertain Kathryn, a hard-edged news photographer (Denmo Ibrahim, Betrayed) who wishes she were in the midst of the street action, and her interpreter, the light-fingered, apolitical Gilma (Sam Jackson). Kathryn has come by appointment to photograph the dictator, so his absence, the gun fire and fragments of news about closed streets and gathering crowds are at first disquieting, then alarming. Fueled by chili vodka, nervous energy and formulaic chit-chat, Michelene is driven to continue to play the perfect hostess despite the emerging truth. She seems incapable of taking action without her husband guiding her.

As they wait and pass the time, we learn more about these women through playwright Morgan’s fascinating device of revisiting portions of conversation and interposing them with the characters’ inner dialogues. Each time Gilma breaks the Venetian vase on the desk, a new fractured version of the same conversation re-starts with a different perspective and a change of mood. Deeper levels of the characters’ thoughts are exposed and more of their private selves are then revealed.

The characters have a touch of the clichéd about them, which is perhaps intentional (note their stereotypical labeling in the program’s cast list as The WifeThe Friend, etc.). Yet, their inner monologues reveal them as more three-dimensional. The scenario is made more complex and interesting because the entire drama is in English even though some of it should be in the country’s native tongue. Gilma is supposed to be translating from that foreign language, although the audience sees her interpreting English into English. Amusingly, she never translates verbatim.

Because of the repetition, separate monologues and English to English translations, Spendour is a difficult play to direct, but Tony-nominated director Barbara Damashek (American BuffaloThe LyonsFat Pig) succeeds admirably. The acting is also first-rate, and not easy, as the actors must subtly build tension until the climax of the 95-minute production.

Because of the format of Spendour, I left the theatre with many unanswered questions. For example, what is the nature of the hold that Michelene has over Genevieve? And what actually happened to Genevieve’s husband? And what is the subject of the painting? My interest in the drama is quite evident since I’ve posed the questions and imagined answers to these queries. Yet, at times, the playwright seemed more interested in the format of the play than its substance, which detracted a bit from the essence of the play — the plight of the characters.

Splendour runs through July 23.