Vortex and New Manifest Theatre's good friday

Kristiana Rae Colón's shocking drama puts audiences at the intersection of gun violence and sexual assault, and makes us think about both

(l-r) Eva McQuade, Faith Anderson, Antora DeLong, and Oktavea Williams in good friday (Photo by Errich Petersen)

You know it's coming, yet there's no way to physically brace for it. Shots have just rung out at Helmer University. Four students, who were just moments ago debating Ibsen's A Doll's House, are now arguing how to survive. The shots steadily grow louder. You feel your muscles tense up, growing tighter with each terrified scream. The door bursts open. You instinctively throw your hands up to protect yourself from what's about to unfold.

The latest from New Manifest Theatre Company, Kristiana Rae Colón's shocking one-act places five university students in the all-too-familiar setting of a campus terrorized by an active shooter. As one might gather, good friday is not an easy experience. It's not forgiving or accessible. The company itself acknowledges this with a pre-show announcement empowering audience members to walk out should they so choose.

If, however, you believe yourself prepared for such an experience, you'll find a wealth of content to sift through. Colón's script is not a surface-level call for thoughts and prayers; rather, its conflict rests squarely at the intersection of gun violence and sexual assault – and it's as viscerally uncomfortable as it sounds.

Navigating enough plot twists to make M. Night Shyamalan blush, director Simone Alexander keeps this provocative show moving at a brisk pace. With her strong eye for characterization and a stellar cast, Alexander balances the clashing worldviews of deeply fleshed-out individuals against an unthinkable reality.

Under her direction, the conflict between the students – Antora DeLong's God-fearing Sophia; Payton Russell's unassuming, self-serving Crete; and Oktavea Williams' irreverently "over-it" Ariel – feels not like a study in opposites but a clash between fully realized individuals. Furthermore, adjunct professor Asha's puzzling responses to trauma (e.g., asking to interview the shooter) are made understandable via actor Eva McQuade's endearing sincerity. Finally, as levelheaded student Kinzie, Faith Anderson anchors her classmates' panic with a commanding line delivery while simultaneously using her established ethos to make increasingly questionable choices.

In the role of antagonist, Emma Galbraith's Emme initially comes across as the bloodthirsty bogeyman we've been conditioned to expect of school shooters, but there's a nuance to her performance, one displayed when she delivers a manifesto detailing the heartbreaking sexual trauma that's driven her to take a stand. It's a performance that separates Galbraith from Bianca Ibarra's revealed antagonist Natalie, who's played (perhaps intentionally?) with all the subtlety of a Saturday morning cartoon villain.

Unsurprisingly for a show set on subverting expectations, good friday's most impactful moment is its pre-recorded epilogue, wherein "CCTV footage" presents students – several semesters after the massacre – making light of the tragedy and the righteous movement its perpetrators hoped to inspire.

Such a strong narrative choice suggests the experiences we shared in this theatre – the anxiety, the claustrophobia, the terror – were effectively meaningless to a society so deeply immersed in codified rape culture. This tonal discontent is only amplified as audiences exit the Vortex theatre space into the adjacent Butterfly Bar, only to find happy-go-lucky bar patrons unaware of the visceral experience that's unfolded mere feet from their carefree revelry.

Ultimately, good friday suggests a troubling, vicious cycle. One is left to wonder how horrifying injustices couldn't inspire violent disillusionment with the legal system. What is the logical end point of a deeply ingrained rape culture destroying countless lives without any real change or justice? As John F. Kennedy famously said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable."

In that way, Colón's script forces us to examine how such a broken system could be circumvented without bloodshed. It's a heavy thought to leave with, one you can't afford to just drink away with a Butterfly Bar martini.

good friday

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through March 14
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.

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Vortex Repertory Company, Vortex Repertory Theatre, New Manifest Theatre Company, Kristiana Rae Colón, Simone Alexander, Eva McQuade, Antora DeLong, Faith Alexander, Payton Russell, Emma Galbraith, Bianca Ibarra, Oktavea Williams

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