Fans of speculative fiction will appreciate the simple question at the core of Glassheart, from Shrewd Productions: What if, back in the day, Beauty never showed up to rescue the Beast? Reina Hardy's original script projects the pitiful, ageless Beast (Michael Miller) and his one remaining servant, a lamp (Carolyn Kramer), into modern-day Chicago, where they have found an apartment to rent. It turns out that the landlady is a witch (Lana Dieterich), and the new neighbor (Shannon Grounds) has some beauty of her own to offer.
Hardy's take on the fairy tale is intriguing and seems to relish in its own magic. Through the many years, the lamp and the Beast have developed a curiously loving relationship in which he regularly barks and snarls, but he also reads to her from the light that she gives off. In fact, the Beast is a true bibliophile. Some of the most endearing moments of Glassheart come when the Beast abandons his animalistic grunts and growls in favor of an earnest love of stories and books. The neighbor, Aoife, has come to Chicago to work at a bookstore (natch), and her quirkiness allows her an entrée into the fairy-tale world. She has the patience to tolerate the weirdness in the Beast's apartment and the loneliness necessary to give him a chance.
Throughout this story looms the presence of the witch, an odd, powerful woman with desires of her own. Evil she may be, but she's also a character with deep and sympathetic desires. Her efforts to manipulate the story away from the conventionally happy ending form the conflict of Glassheart.
The production design is oddly lacking in this show – "oddly" because qualified and talented designers worked on it. Buzz Moran's sound design is shoddy and incomplete. Ann Marie Gordon's set design includes oversights, like the cloth that hangs upstage of the apartment window to provide a surface on which to shine Patrick Anthony's lighting, but whose edges are clearly visible from a seat not far from the center of the house. That such successful designers have fallen short across the board suggests a fault in the production which does not belong only to them.
Similarly, the performances are good but not quite all the way there. Miller, who has shown subtlety in other roles, growls over other characters' lines and never quite lands his physical characterization of the Beast. As the lamp, Kramer finds a poised, careful way of moving, but she never fully settles into her choices.
Under Kyle Zamcheck's direction, Glassheart is a fascinating experiment with a story based on magic and fantasy. It's easy to wonder whether with just a little bit more time, a little bit more money, or a little bit more unity of vision, the production might have risen from the level of a pretty decent play to among the year's best.
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