It was more than four years ago that Emily Harrison, artistic director for Boulder’s square product theatre, saw University of Denver professor Selah Saterstrom read an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, SLAB, at a Naropa University writing workshop. Harrison found the themes intriguing.
So intriguing that she spent the time since working on a stage adaptation with Gleason Bauer, who directs and designed sets for the adaptation, which is currently running at ATLAS’ Black Box Theatre on the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus through August 16.
SLAB is the story of Tiger (played by Harrison), a stripper whose story begins during Hurricane Katrina as she is searching for sustenance for her mother and an infant child. We flash back and forth through Tiger’s past; events include her grandfather’s suicide, a stint in juvenile hall, an extended interview with Barbara Walters and her lifelong love affair with Champ, a childhood friend. The multimedia production has a Naropa feel to it, using literary metaphor and imagery and avant-garde theater techniques, including a narrator who serves as the emcee of the play.
The production value is strong and Bauer’s set design is fantastic. The big ATLAS space is filled with interesting set pieces and decoration. Two of the three projection screens are very well integrated into the set and a highlight is the use of a refrigerator door as a screen. The stage is surrounded by dressing room mirrors, and Bauer does a great job with the pre-show. It has become more and more cliché to have actors onstage for pre-show, but SLAB makes it work. The actors sit at their makeup tables getting ready for the production. Exciting music plays, and the lighting, mostly from the mirrors’ lights, produces a cool and stylish effect. The video design of the production by Christine Battle and the sound design by Janet Feder and Paul Fowler are well done and Jess Buttery’s lighting greatly adds to the production’s atmosphere.
The work of the cast is quite good. Mark Collins brings authority to the role of preacher-turned-theater producer (though his character does a lot more preaching than theater producing). Lauren Dennis is convincing and amusing in a diverse set of roles. Cage Sebastian Pierre is touching as Champ.
As Tiger, Harrison carries the piece, which is no small feat. Much of the play is extended monologues and Harrison is good at finding the sarcasm and humor in the script.
But even with the strong performances, the narrative of the play can be disjointed and hard to follow. It takes over 15 minutes at the play’s start for the characters to be introduced and some of vignettes do not seem to connect thematically to the piece. Also, several major production choices are not fully integrated. The narrator dominates the beginning of the play but is absent for long stretches and is not connected to most of the scenes. The multimedia aspect of the play seems tacked on more than it does fully integrated into the script. Once we meet Tiger the script is mostly loosely connected monologues that could work without the multimedia. Additionally, the extended monologues cause a problem in that most of Harrison’s work is directed toward the audience, making the connection between actors not very strong.
Like many new plays, SLAB is a play in development. Harrison has stated the play went through revisions right up until opening and I feel the play could use further editing. The script is too long at more than two hours and could use an intermission. SLAB brings up major themes, such as life and death, survival, love and gender. The play is right to not wrap up these big ideas in a tidy package, but it introduces a lot of ponderous questions without thematic resolution. The night I saw the production there were major technical difficulties, which I’m sure affected the performance. But the show runs for three weeks so there is a lot of time for growth. Square product has a good reputation for developing new work, and while I had a hard time connecting to this piece, I look forward to seeing their work in the future.