As we pass the anniversary of live theatre shut-down, it is good to know that some theatre companies, those who haven’t lost their leases and gone out of business, are still producing theatrical events. It was half a year before I was able to cast off my grim lethargy and experience a new production streamed on Zoom and write a review. It took some getting used to. But I have now seen and reviewed ten shows since last October and I have gradually perked up as the quality of what I have seen and heard steadily improves. None of the shows can compare to the live experience with packed theatregoers sitting and chatting elbow to elbow waiting for the curtain speech and the dimming of lights, but my-oh-my have I experienced some fine acting lately. At the apex of this new kind of theatre is The Road Company’s brilliant staging of Harrison David Rivers’ play, This Bitter Earth.
This Bitter Earth, directed by Gregg T. Daniel, “is a fully-realized stage production, recorded on four cameras at The Road Theatre Company’s Magnolia stage.” This is not a Zoom play with actors emoting from a box facing full-front. To be fair, I have some seen and reviewed some pretty good performances using that technique. This Bitter Earth is comparable to recorded and broadcast shows like Broadway’s Hamilton or Carmen at the Met, but on, of course, a much more intimate scale.
Jesse (Matthew Hancock), a gay, twenty-something Black man, is a Masters candidate who has an ambition to write plays. His lover, Neil (Chase Cargill), is a privileged, white, Black Lives Matter activist. Their love and affection is joyous. It is palpable. They are witty and intelligent. Their interaction is spirited enough to pierce through the screen of my 50-inch Samsung and touch my soul.
The action of the play shifts in time and place in a seemingly haphazard fashion, from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Manhattan and back again multiple times. One scene is repeated several times. The lovers are cheerfully drunk on their way home and stop to sing the States Song…
“Alabama and Alaska
California , Colorado and Connecticut and more
Delaware, Florida, Georgia
Then Hawaii, Idaho
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa still 35 to go,
Kansas and Kentucky
Then good ole Michigan…”
and so on. It is repeated for good and sufficient reason.
Conflicts are inevitable, especially over Neil’s devotion to the Black Lives Matter movement, which leads to a rupture in their relationship. No more details. See this play!
The staging of This Bitter Earth is impeccable, with a terrific set designed by Brian Graves; with lighting by Derrick McDaniel; sound design by Yasmine El-Tayeb; costume design by Mary Jane Miller; and projection design by Nicholas Santiago. Rounding out the creative staff are stage manager Maurie Gonzalez; Christine Joëlle, property coordinator; Carly D. Weckstein, intimacy coordinator; Ken Merckx, fight director; Christina Carlisi choreographer; and Dor Gvirtsman, social media producer.
In true theatrical fashion, the actors came out for a curtain call, with individual bows, and then a joint company bow. Although there were only two of us seeing the show, my lovely wife and I needed to rise from our cozy love seat to applaud vigorously. Seemed only right!
This Bitter Earth is not streamed whenever is convenient for a viewer. No, like in the real world of theatre, the “curtain” goes up at a specific time on a specific day. I saw the opening performance on Friday, March 26th. The show will be streaming at select dates and times through Friday, April 30th. Tickets are priced at $25 per household. Special group rates are available for community centers, educators, and university groups. For any ticketing questions, please reach out at email@example.com, call (818) 761-8838, or visit www.RoadTheatre.org to purchase tickets online.