Review: West Coast premiere of ‘Bright Half Life’ at Magic Theatre (**1/2)

(Charles Kruger)
Rating: **1/2

Sarah Nina Hayon as Vicky and Lisa Anne Porter as Erica in Magic Theatre's West Coast premiere of "Bright Half LIfe" by Tanya Barfield. Photo Credit: Magic Theatre.
Sarah Nina Hayon as Vicky and Lisa Anne Porter as Erica in Magic Theatre’s West Coast premiere of “Bright Half LIfe” by Tanya Barfield. Photo Credit: Magic Theatre.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Even in 2015, women playwrights get little enough attention that The Magic Theatre, for the current season, has opted to select plays by women exclusively. (They are not the only company to do so; Berkeley’s Shotgun Players are similarly committed.)

And if women playwrights are still riding the back of the bus, then lesbian -themed plays are stuck hitchhiking by the side of the road. Audiences that care about this (which one hopes would be all of us) will be delighted with Tanya Barfield’s “Bright Half Life,” a two-character play depicting a lesbian marriage over many years that never indulges in stereotyping but delivers believable characters in a believable relationship. It turns out that “gay marriage” is, well, just “marriage.”

Sarah Nina Hayon and Lisa Anne Porter deliver skillful performances as Vicky and Erica, managing a difficult script with aplomb. The script is difficult because playwright Tanya Barfield has chosen to tell the story by moving rapidly backwards and forwards in time, with many, many short scenes (some only a few lines). If this were a painting of the marriage, it would be an impressionist painting in the pointillist style. No single scene depicts much, but taken as a whole, the play creates an impression of many years of shared life.

While this approach is interesting, and provides some virtuoso moments for the actresses, it leads to a distressing shallowness overall. While these characters are certainly not lesbian stereotypes in any way — a significant and admirable accomplishment — they are not deeply developed, either. The play is short on events and suspense, and the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are indicated symbolically rather than presented in an empathetic manner. The script, for example, spirals thematically around Erica’s fear of ferris wheels and Vicky’s fascination with sky diving, but it didn’t succeed in making me care about or empathize with these feelings.

In short, the play seems more concerned with its experimental structure than with the characters themselves. It is a serious flaw. The structure of short scenes, rapid changes, symbolic images, and overall experimental style seems to promise more depth than the actual lines deliver. I’m left with the feeling that I would have been more satisfied with a revival or adaptation of “The Fourposter” featuring two women than I am with this experimental hodge podge.

The program notes indicate that an earlier version of the play was only 60 minutes in length, and that the current version has had 30 minutes added. It seems to me that the playwright and director may have become too enamored with their experiments at the expense of depth of feeling and audience empathy.

Still, a play about a lesbian marriage is most welcome, and “Bright Half Life,” whatever its flaws, is likely to find (and deserves to find) an appreciative audience.

“Bright Half Life” plays at the The Reuff in The Strand Theatre in downtown San Francisco  through November 14, 2015. For further information click here

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“Bright Half Life” by Tanya Barfield, a west coast premiere produced by Magic Theatre. Director: Jessica Holt. Set Design: Erik Flatmo. Costume Design: Christine Cook. Lighting Design: Burke Brown. Sound Design: Brian Hickey.

Cast:

Vicky: Sarah Nina Hayon. Erica: Lisa Anne Porter.

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