Theatre en Bloc's Bright Half Life

For Tanya Barfield's two-character drama, Theatre en Bloc couples an intimate story with a relentlessly personal performance space

Magic needs a place to happen. Dimensions are irrelevant, so long as that place fits one simple criterion: It must be the right place. The perfect pairing of script and venue doesn't come along often, but when it does, the environment and experience become a character unto themselves. With Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield, Theatre en Bloc couples an already intimate story with a relentlessly personal performance space.

Director Jenny Lavery packs just 20 people per show into the Pony Shed at the Vortex, plus two actors: Krysta Gonzales as Vicki and Marina DeYoe-Pedraza as Erica. Upon entering the space, which I'd estimate (roughly) at only 170 square feet, Vicki and Erica are already seated next to each other on a small bench against the far wall. The audience squeezes in next to them, lining the walls and hugging the corners, leaving only a generously estimated 10-by-10-foot playing space. There are no props. No set to speak of (save the bench). Only a handful of delicately dangling lights help guide us through an emotional roller coaster. Or is it a Ferris wheel?

Once the show begins, subtle changes in said lights (and contextual evidence in dramatic action) indicate shifts in time. Bright Half Life is temporally jumbled, shuffling events in these two lovers' lives and presenting them in random order. Their first meeting and last take place over an hour's time, with dates, fights, marriage, children, skydiving, and Ferris wheel anxieties all delivered sporadically throughout – the moments of their lives together a game of 52 Pick-Up strewn about the venue floor. There is great beauty in this chaos. Our memories of our own relationships are not likely linear either – more an amorphous blob of consciousness, memories, and events than a regimented timeline. Sense memory plays havoc on our recollection, and this play captures the bittersweet flow from joy to anguish and back.

Gonzales and DeYoe-Pedraza exhibit exemplary skill in their portrayals of these characters under the play's conditions, shifting gears with intention and intensity, never missing a beat. Every time change is clear, every shift in focus and moment deliberate and acutely executed. It feels as though we're peering into a collective dream half-remembered rather than two sides of the same story, and the detailed work put in by Lavery and her actors is evident from the start. The venue offers no escape from this story, no retreat into the darkness of the house – in fact, all audience members are well-lit and, you know, right there. This adds an element of connection, the occasional flitting of the eye causing unintentional eye contact with another patron to remind us just how human this story is.

Theatre en Bloc's Bright Half Life shares interesting similarities with Sherrod Curry Productions' The Last Five Years, reviewed last week. Both productions took plays about rising and falling relationships, told in nonlinear fashion, and staged them in rather cozy venues, and both were heavily female-driven – excepting the male music director for The Last Five Years, there's not a Y chromosome to be seen in either show, onstage or off. At a time when American theatre is embroiled in a debate about the lack of/need for more good plays written and produced by women, for women, or about women, this utter win from Theatre en Bloc provides proof that such works exist and we should all be looking harder for them and giving them our support. A perfect mixture of time, place, and talent, Bright Half Life had me invested and reflective and eager for more work in nontraditional spaces.

Bright Half Life

The Pony Shed at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd.
Through April 9
Running time: 1 hr.

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Theatre en Bloc, Jenny Lavery, Krysta Gonzales, Marina DeYoe-Pedraza, Tanya Barfield

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