BY KATHLEEN CAMPION
The NY International Fringe Festival is nothing if not ambitious – 185 shows in 17 days – playing to a demanding New York audience in August? Are you crazy? That said, watching theatre stripped down to basic elements – blank stage, minimal set and props, simple lighting and effects, leaves us with just the words and the actors.
At the Robert Moss Theater on Lafayette “The A-is-for-Abortion Play” relies on four young women sharing stories of how they felt as each realized an unwelcome pregnancy and each decided to abort.
Our guide is Alexa (Candace Bryant), a flawless beauty, whose decision to abort is so personal we never know why she decides to do it. We don’t know about the man. We don’t know about her family. Bryant is beguiling but a bit chilly.
Bethany (Jen Harris) is warm, and a little shamed, but certain about her choices. We like her, we get her. Harris plays her like a woman but I fear she is written like a Black woman.
Clarissa (Julissa Roman) like Bethany, is written too much to stereotype. Clarissa is Hispanic, and Roman, who is Peruvian, is well cast. I kept wishing each was given more to do. That said, the production is a series of quick takes, so perhaps there’s not a lot of room for character development.
The magic creature – Puck if you will – in this estrogen adventure is Dani (Eilis Cahill). I left the theater not knowing if the character is magic or the actor is; maybe both. When she is on the stage it is as if some waif has wandered in with something important to say and you can’t wait to hear what it is.
Versatile Ellen David plays everyone else. She’s the vapid, Joan Rivers-wannabe on the red carpet, the intake person at Planned Parenthood, the unfunny church lady terrorizing young women outside the clinic, the conservative congresswoman out to gut Roe v. Wade, and the Greek chorus who puts the 40-year history of Roe in context. Only her rendition of a nose-picking child leaves us unconvinced.
There are inspired moments like the badger dream. Bethany (Jen Harris), after narrating two abortions, is happily pregnant with what she knows to be a daughter but dreams is a badger. Her version of the dream is alive. Someone really had that dream and Jen Harris makes us believe she did.
The writer, Cassandra Hume, blogs: “…The word (abortion) has a voice politically, but there is a personal conversation yet to be had openly. It’s about time this ‘dirty word’ got a personal voice”.
While I would not argue with her sentiment, I think this is where the play went wrong for me. It feels a bit like teenagers “discovering” sex, or pot; naive, perhaps dated, or maybe just young. “Abortion” like “cancer” used to be ‘dirty’ words but that’s not been true among women for a very long time. Perhaps she’s right, that it is a conversation that must be had…but it is not “yet to be had”. Perhaps it needs to be had again.
Single best wardrobe element? In an inspired scene spoofing the red carpet experience of galas and premieres, in this case it’s The Abortion Ball, the characters are tricked out in stylized hospital “gowns” (a strappy Beth Israel, a traditional St. Vincent’s). The gowns are open at the back, of course, but in this case they showcase ruffled panties you’d only see on pole-dancers. Bizarre and eye-catching at the same time. Kudos to costume designer Katherine Goerlich.
Director Joanne Bowzer managed to show us a lot of action – birth,
bleeding-out, badgers, red carpets, and quiet…not easy and very well done.
People – five of them acting like maybe fifteen – got on and off and on again fast thanks to stage manager Catherine DeCioccio who also (property design) made a tiny Container Store cart, an overlarge speculum, and a sturdy table serve many masters.
“The A-is-for-Abortion Play” has two more lively performances at The Robert Moss Theater, 440 Lafayette St. Go Wednesday, August 21st at 5:15 or Sunday, August 25th at 2:15.
The running time is one-hour, twenty-minutes with no intermission. It’s general admission ($15) so you stand in line a bit and, strangely, the house staff announces you might like to use the rest room as no one will be readmitted during the performance. I’d go anyway – to the play I mean.