Patrick Thomas, Talkin' Broadway
When you step into the intimate, immersive Aurora Theatre in Berkeley for their production of Abi Morgan's Splendour, you will likely be struck by the elegance of Michael Locher's gorgeous set design. It has a look of opulent luxury—fitting, as it is meant to represent the presidential palace of the dictator of an unnamed Eastern European country. All is white, pristine and crystalline.
It is this last adjective that is most important to the structure of this arresting (and sometimes maddening) play. For just as the crystal glassware and lighting fixtures and picture frame prismatically split visible light into its constituent colors, Morgan's play shows us the same scene multiple times in multiple variations of tone and point of view. It's a rather cubist approach to drama, giving us bits and pieces of the same figure, but from different angles in order to provide a greater sense of context.
The context here is of a nation in crisis, with its leader off dealing with the unrest while his wife Micheleine (Lorri Holt) and her best friend Genevieve (Mia Tagano) host photojournalist Kathryn (Denmo Ibrahim) and interpreter Gilma (Sam Jackson). Kathryn was scheduled to take a portrait of the strongman, but with rebels from the north causing chaos in the south, he's otherwise occupied. Though first lady Micheleine claims he's merely been delayed signing some papers, it's clear from the sound of explosions coming closer and closer (brilliant sound design from Matt Stines) that she is dissembling.
As Splendour's 95 minutes unfold, we go back in time again and again, taking us to the play's first moment, when a Venetian glass vase breaks, a shattering crash we hear over and over—and we hear the bombs and gunfire happening outside as the country itself shatters. Repeatedly, the four women spar with each other, drink pepper-infused vodka, and attempt to maintain some sense of self-cohesion as the world around them falls apart, threatening everything each of them holds (or has held) dear: love, children, ideals ... life.
Director Barbara Damashek has assembled a marvelous cast. Denmo Ibrahim, whom I first saw in a solo performance she also wrote (Baba) brings a terrific gravitas to her role as a photojournalist seasoned (or scarred) by years of seeing "things I prefer to look at through the eye of a lens." Her stare is hard and skeptical, revealing nothing and everything at the same time.
Bay Area veteran Lorri Holt imbues her character with a perfect sense of entitlement as well as blindness to the needs of others—beyond a hostess's sense of hospitality. In her bright white skirted suit she seems innocent, but it is as stained with the blood of her countrymen as any soldier in a gore-splattered uniform.
If there is any comic relief in this hard-edged play, it comes from Sam Jackson's portrayal of Gilma, who is more interested in pinching whatever she can fit in her pockets when no one is looking than in translating. She represents the mentality of the looter, exhibiting a constant, corrupt self-interest. Jackson has an amazing face, which she can control beautifully to translate her character's inner motivation into subtle (and often hilarious) gestures. Her eye-rolls and smirks are marvelously effective, never slipping into caricature or clowning. Mia Tagano also does fine work as the most vulnerable of the four women. Her Genevieve has had a greater loss than any of this quartet, but she bears it stoically.
Some things (like that Venetian vase) can, once broken, never be put right again. Even if you could gather all the pieces, even if you could precisely determine their location in perfect relation to each other, it would never be the same as when it was first shaped from the molten mass it was at its birth. Likewise, these four characters, and the country in which Splendour is set, will never fully recover from what has happened—and is happening—to them.
Splendour runs through July 23, 2017, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $32-$56. Tickets and additional information are available by calling 510-843-4822.