Before even going to “Esdras,” you should know it’s something very special. It is one of those rare things — a play produced, written and performed by students. Even rarer still, most of these students are freshmen. But you wouldn’t know it.
Haunting the Ezra Stiles Little Theatre this weekend are the stories of eleven damned women performed by a trio of wailing, quivering and sometimes joking actresses (Gwynedd Davis ’11, Isabel Siragusa ’11 and Alice Walton ’10). Playwright and director Oren Stevens ’11, the mastermind behind this production, said he chose the stories because they “resonated with [him],” and that, whilst he was writing the script, “some of them just flowed out.”
The play — an audacious mixture between staging and text — relies heavily on the use of language to convey atmosphere. The intent listener will definitely be rewarded by the variety of styles (including a child’s song about Mary Tudor, a translated lecture by Marie-Antionette and a bickering moment between three different aspects of Cleopatra’s personality). Stevens’ mastery of these styles is astounding; he switches from a colloquial Ethel Rosenberg to an arrogant and unspeaking Mata-Hari in the blink of a scene change.
Of course, the danger of a play like this is that the audience will be bored. The play has no intermission and has little action beyond the symbolic gestures and expressions of the damned women. However, credit must go to the actresses. Given little to work with aesthetically beyond the words themselves (the few props and costumes are simple so as not to “impose on the action”), the actresses breathe life into the lines, thereby conjuring up rich images of bygone days. The audience will find themselves waiting for yet another story by the time the play ends.
“Esdras” works itself to three climaxes for each of the three actresses. First is Livilla (made rich by the wailing Davis), the scheming poisoner-wife of Drusus, son of Tiberius, imprisoned in her own room without food. Use is made of the walls to signify her punishment as the room suddenly becomes more claustrophobic. The audience grows conscious of the space surrounding them, the closeness of the atmosphere and the darkness of the paint; the theatre becomes stifling, suffocating, urging one forward like a swimmer in a cavern desperately seeking air.
Indeed, there are pockets of air in the tales of executions and the surreal, after-death experiences of the wives of Henry VIII and Joan of Arc which are treated with a wry humor by both the cast and the play itself. In addition to this, relief is offered by the orchestra, illuminated, somehow angelically, in the background.
The highlight of the play and its second climax is the story of Elizabeth Bathory. In it, the beauty of Stevens’s language is exploited to the fullest extent possible by Siragusa who struts and poses her way around the stage in a truly magnificent way. The fluidity of the lines is at its best here, and the circumstances of the story are treated so euphemistically (blood is only referred to as “hot, red life”), that it conjures up the most horrifying images of any of the stories. The imagination of the audience is key here, and Stevens’s language darts around so nimbly that the free play of mental images is unstoppable.
The final climactic moment is the story of Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski. Perhaps the rewinding, pausing, fast-forwarding of her life could have been further honed through the use of props, but Walton’s performance and innocence creates the most scarring moment in a scarring play. The image of her cut body, frozen in light against the back wall is photographic in quality and the most memorable visual effect. This, out of any moment of the play, will remain in the minds of audience members long after the play has run its course.
With few flaws beyond the (very) occasional stumble and the somewhat monotony of just one lighting style, “Esdras” is certainly something worth seeing. Indeed, Stevens might be, as his high school teacher told him, “The next great female playwright.”