History was made on the local arts and culture scene with the opening of “Gloria,” presented by American Lives Theatre. One of Indy’s newest theatre groups, ALT debuted Friday at IndyFringe Basile Theatre off Mass Ave. Founded by artistic director Chris Saunders, the fledgling group’s mission states that it “engages, provokes and entertains by presenting a mirror to Indianapolis, reflecting our lives and history with new work and neglected classics exploring the lives and experiences of all Americans.” I can attest that Saunders, his team and loyal supporters are off to an auspicious start, based on what I, and an enthusiastic, full audience witnessed on opening night.
To launch what promises to be a dynamic new theatre, Saunders couldn’t have chosen a more powerful, provocative and relevant play than “Gloria.” It’s a dramatic comedy written by playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
To avoid spoilers and ruin the fun, I won’t reveal any of the plot, but can tell you that as satire goes, this one which is pretty caustic, will resonate with anyone (as it did with this former cubicle worker) who has ever worked in an office beset with the usual politics, power struggles, ineffectual bosses, ambitious colleagues jockeying for position, backstabbing, egos and personality clashes. The play takes place in modern-day Manhattan and is set in the office of a magazine, where tensions run high among a group of frustrated, over-educated, aspiring writers who are dissatisfied with their low-level desk jobs, operating in an environment in which toxicity reigns supreme. Suffice to say, based on that description, one might wonder how any humor can be derived from such a grim situation, but I can assure you that Jacobs-Jenkins’s smartly written script, is very, very funny, but also has as its share of unexpected surprises that make its unpredictability part of its entertaining appeal.
Saunders, an actor who formerly plied his craft in Chicago and New York, directed the play. I happen to think actors have a leg over those who’ve never done it when it comes to coaxing the best performances out of their fellow artists. That goes for casting too. In the case of “Gloria,” Saunders excelled at both. Revealing a direction that is sharp and inventive, his choice of actors reflected his splendid eye for talent and capabilities.
With most playing multiple characters, the sterling cast including Joe Barsanti (Dean/Devin), Kim Egan (Kendra/Jenna), Bridget Haight (Gloria/Nan), Morgan Morton (Ani/Sasha/Callie), Joshua Short (Miles/Rashaad), and Tom Weingartner (Lorin) all turned in finely-crafted performances.
Particularly strong in a colorful and vivid performance was Egan as egocentric, snarky assistant editor Kendra. Narcissistic and self-absorbed, she is given to shopping, making Starbucks runs, playing on her smart phone and even doing her nails while she shirks her responsibilities. As the quintessential office mean girl, who belittles and criticizes everyone around her, Egan kicked it out of the ballpark.
Also turning in a well-drawn performance was Barsanti, as Dean, another assistant editor, who constantly spars with Kendra as he bides his time, writing a memoir, abusing alcohol and dreaming of his day in the sun as a full-fledged writer. I look forward to seeing Barsanti, in possession of an impressive stage presence, in more roles that will challenge him.
During a post-show discussion between audience members and the cast, the moderator posed a question regarding what it would take to avoid the sort of train-wreck conflict and behavior portrayed in “Gloria” that is not uncommon in today’s political climate, beset with incivility and intolerance. “Kindness. Just be kind to people,” said one audience member. If there were a lesson to be learned from this play, it was this simple yet very powerful one, and one which speaks to ALT’s goals as noted in the program’s director’s notes and summed up in a quote from a Prince lyric, “We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
“Gloria” continues at IndyFringe Basile Theatre through Jan. 26. For tickets go to americanlivestheatre.org.