Making theatre is hard. Making any kind of art is hard, but the challenges that accompany mounting a live production – logistical, administrative, financial – are far more complicated than making a charcoal sketch or recording a song on Garage Band. It is for this reason that I approach all plays, particularly original plays, and especially those produced by new companies, with an understanding that the artists involved have invested considerable energy into making their art. It is with this attitude of anticipation that I approached Red High Heels, the inaugural production of Sharp Stick Productions.
Written by Harrison Murphy and directed by Jim Girardi, Red High Heels is actually three separate one-act plays, ranging in subject from mid-life crisis to the existence of God. Messrs. Murphy and Harrison certainly make some audacious choices, particularly in the third increment, The Blue Box, where a geologist is put on trial in some sort of dystopian theocracy for questioning the existence of God. And several members of the 11-strong ensemble give strong and engaging performances, including Lily Kerrigan, Andrew Quilpa, and Erin Wagner. However, beyond these promising moments Red High Heels needs a lot of work.
First, the three plays have little, if any, connection to one another. The titular red high heels are mentioned only twice, and, although worn by every female actor in the cast, have no apparent metaphorical or lyrical significance. Within the first two plays, The Bar and Vignettes, the writing lacks a clear dramatic arc; any conflict within or between characters is so mild that no one is really fighting to achieve their objective. This puts the actors in a tricky spot, because they don’t really have anything to pursue. Exacerbating the static writing is blocking that is unusually still, especially in the first and second plays. There is little movement in the plays, either physical or emotional. Therefore, the eye and the ear cry out for spectacle to replace the vacuum left by the writing and directing. Unfortunately, there is little to be had. The lighting (by John D. Alexander) does a poor job of illuminating the action on stage, and the sound design, what little there is, contributes nothing. The most prominent feature of the set is a huge canvas screen that dominates the stage, and yet it is only used for a tiny fraction of the show, to project videos that accompany the final scene.
While The Bar and Vignettes suffer from a dearth of dramatic content, The Blue Box overflows with an abundance of metaphor and theatrical devices. The latter, which features nothing less than a Christian fundamentalist judge, a masked jury of the dead, and a mysterious seated Zen monk, is giddy over its own intelligence, yet not quite sure what to do with itself on stage. Is it an Ionesco piece with a message tailored for the Christopher Hitchens set? Is it dumbed down Sam Beckett? The questions are more intriguing than the answers. However, The Blue Box is at least properly lit, and featured some interesting costumes and set pieces by Stephanie Fisher and Gregory Jackson, respectively. It also was the best platform to showcase some truly promising performers, including Erin Wagner as the megalomaniac judge, Andrew Quilpa as the heretic geologist, and Lily Kerrigan as a frisky quantum scientist.
It is clear that Harrison Murphy and Jim Girardi have an ambition to produce original, serious work on stage. Their intentions should be applauded, and they should make ample use of the workshop, so that they can receive feedback on what choices work and what should be avoided. Only then will they come close to the acerbic message and bold aesthetic that they so evidently aspire to.
Running Time: One hour and forty five minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.
Red High Heels plays through January 24, 2015 at Sharp Stick Productions, performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased at the door or by going online.