Thursday, March 3, 2016


“Night Vision” by Emma Donoghue
“Silence” by Colm Tóibín

Rosie Hallet as Franny Listens to Rudy Guerrero as Her Brother
The formative years of two, nineteenth-century, Irish women who will later in life leave legacies for future generations are the subjects of two short stories presented dramatically in a manner unique to Z Space’s Word for Word.  A cast of six forms an exquisite ensemble that roams and runs, passes by and pauses with the full coordination, bravado, and grace of a ballet troupe while never missing a beat in relaying -- sometimes in full sentences or paragraphs and often in just an interjected word -- the stories as written in prose but now performed as two short plays.  Each of the women who plays the focus of the two tales is singularly striking in her ability to grab and hold rapt attention through her measured, masterful, third-party accounting of an important turning point in her own life.  Never does either over-play even one moment of the telling but recounts surrounding events, inner thoughts, and intimate reactions with exacting expressions of voice, body, and face that are mesmerizing to watch.  The result for Word for Word is an evening that is captivating, educating, and uplifting in every respect.

Rosie Hallet as Franny
Emma Donaghue’s “Night Vision” paints a vivid, childhood picture of one of Ireland’s beloved poets, the blind Frances Browne who lived 1816-1870.  Growing up in a family of twelve kids, “Franny” tells much of her story amongst the snores of her siblings all crowded in bed with her (“all packed together like mackerels in a pot”).  Taking advantage of rare quiet in such a household, Franny tells us, “When I can’t sleep, I make a blank sheet in my mind and fill it.”  Rosie Hallett is beautifully convincing in conveying non-seeing eyes that stare straight ahead with steadfast gaze but that never fail to say so much of what is going on inside her creative mind.  Truly a poet in the making even without yet knowing it, Franny, in a voice authentically Irish, describes scenes of a magical countryside with seven windmills, of an old woman weaving her own hair, and of a wolf with mane so shaggy he could not see.  Her countenance fully brightens as she imagines, “I think color is when you can taste smelling with your eyes.” 

When Franny gets a chance to go to school with her older siblings, she discovers, “The words behind my lips are a trouble to nobody ...  it is only when I let them out.”  An outburst of independent thinking does not sit well with the town’s minister (the bent-over, finger-pointing, and permanently frowning Richard Farrell with scraggly grey beard) and off she is sent to wander home on her own– much to the chagrin of her young and handsome teacher, Mr. McGranahan (an encouraging Rudy Guerrero) who will provide a first step for her to meet her now-firm dream: “If I do not become a poet, then what does it all mean?”  Becca Wolff directs the story to a magically memorable ending, after first creatively orchestrating riotous (and loud) play of sisters and brothers, brief scenes of Frannie’s vivid imagination coming to life, and the route of a blind girl making her way with little caution and much courage.

Stephanie Hunt as Lady Gregory
In a second, longer tale taking place between 1880 and 1894 in Ireland and around Europe, (“Silence” by Colm Tóibín), Stephanie Hunt plays a young woman, Isabella Augusta, who worries when we first meet her that her present life may not in the end be that different between “now and the eternity she would spend in the grave.”  But when she is introduced to the much older (as in thirty-five years) Lord William Gregory (the spry, dapperly dressed Richard Farrell), she is destined to become Lady Gregory and to travel as his wifely escort to the great halls and venues of the Continent.  Ms. Hunt tells Lady Gregory’s story with subtle nods, wayward looks, a slightly lifting and gently falling voice, and eyes that speak volumes with tiny movements timed just right to accent words spoken by her or by others.  

Stephanie Hunt & Rudy Guerrero
Jim Cave directs some very telling and funny scenes of the young wife and aged husband in bed, making it easy to understand why she is shaken to her core when introduced to the stunningly striking poet, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt.  Rudy Guerrero struts about like a proud peacock as he uses Mr. Tóibín’s words to describe all the magnificent qualities that Lady Gregory notices.  Given that he is married to Lady Anne (Rosie Hallet as his sophisticated, societal Egyptian spouse) and she to the elder Lord Gregory, their illicit affair becomes hot, heavy, and hidden to all.  Both actors play their occasional meetings with both sensuality of emotions and sensitivity to the time’s mores.  With the ensemble members coming in and out to highlight words and phrases in order to weave a vivid quilt of emotions and impressions, we also watch the determined plotting and planning of a woman and poet who will ensure her story is told, even if society will not yet let her always do the telling.  A befriending of Henry James (jovially and astutely portrayed by Robert Sicular, who earlier played Franny’s understanding and encouraging father) leads to one avenue for Lady Gregory to hope her love story that could not be spoken might one day be put to print.  (Later in real life, Lady Gregory will become a political, social, literary, and theatrical leader in her own right.)

For both stories, Jacquelyn Scott has created flowing backdrops of silky strips of cloth that enhance the shadowy, dark world that Franny lives in and that accentuate the secret, behind-the-scenes affair of Lady Gregory.  With gaps in between the ceiling to floor hangings, ensemble actors slip in and out as parenthetical inserts to the story they help tell without ever interrupting. 
Jeff Rowlings ensures that lighting effects add to the ever-moving, ever-changing flow of the stories with Brian Hickey adding in sound the needed background laughter or ballroom music to complete the scene.  Both stories come to full life through Callie Floor’s humble village costumes in “Night Vision” and her gorgeous gowns and proper gentleman’s attires in “Silence.”  And Lynne Soffer must be congratulated for coaching the Irish dialects of all actors that are both authentic and understandable in their deliveries.

Becca Wolff and Jim Cave have taken words written for another medium and, in Word for Word style, have staged two engaging, entertaining stories that literally sparkle through ingenuous sharing of story telling they have parsed out among this cast of six. 

Rating: 5 E

 Word for Word presents Stories through April 3, 2016 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credit: Julie Schuchard

No comments:

Post a Comment