Have you ever considered how one might cure intentional death? That’s an odd way to put it – intentional death. That might bring suicide to mind, but as Justin Capps (Atticus Shaindlin) explains to George (Emily Liberatore),
“Suicide implies a crime …. It’s [intentional death] not a crime. Almost every time, it’s an illness that causes the act. I’m trying to cure it.”
Curing intentional death requires examining what’s behind it, which of course means exploring the attitudes and actions surrounding mental illness. That’s the central theme in A Theatre Near U’s world premiere of Tony Kienitz’s new musical, A Beautiful Glass, and it is, in a word, smashing.
The story was initially inspired by recent events related to suicide in the Palo Alto area, but as Kienitz and his wife and collaborator Tanna Herr dug deeper into the issues as part of their research, they found that many teens were disturbed by how their generation is portrayed in the media. Kienitz wanted to paint a more in-depth picture of some of the attitudes he and Herr were seeing amongst the youth in their community. In the process, he made this work a true collaboration, not only with Herr, but also with their cast and creative staff.
Throughout the process, the company helped to shape the material, including the prose, the music, the movement, the staging, all of which combine in glorious synergy. It’s a story that demands exploration of societal attitudes and biases, smashing several negative stereotypes, leaving in its wake greater understanding.
Herr and Kienitz co-direct their cast of exceptional young actors in this insightful work. Pierce Peter Brandt is the vocal director. Ali Arian Molaei does double duty as both cast member and choreographer for this production.
While Kienitz wrote the book and lyrics, the music composition was shared amongst several artists including: Andrew Lu, Annabel Marks, Peter Willits, Jeremy Samos, and Jeremy Erman. The performance band includes: Willits (drums), Samos (guitar/bass), Leanne Miron (violin/ukulele/piano), and cast member Shayan Hooshmand (piano).
The 18-member cast, aged 13-19, is led by Shaindlin and Liberatore. Everyone else plays multiple roles in this versatile ensemble, each bringing forward different nuances to the story. Beyond Shaindlin, Liberatore, Molaei, and Hooshmand, the rest of the ensemble cast includes: Alexandra Dinu, Lauren Emo, Anna Feenstra, Monica Hobbs, Elizabeth McCole, Cara Parker, Alyssa Rojas, Quincy Shaindlin, Zoe Stanton-Savitz, Mia Trubelja, Robert Vetter, Gil Weissman, Jackson Wylder, and Derek Zhou.
In a fortuitous bit of casting, Quincy Shaindlin, five years Atticus Shaindlin’s junior, plays the young Justin at several points in the story. Their family resemblance is strong making the younger Shaindlin all the more believable.
George is a student fascinated by supernovas and has a telescope setup in a remote location that she unintentionally ends up sharing with Justin. He’s quirky, even nuts by most of his contemporaries’ standards, but she becomes interested in his quest and starts helping him. The two have a connection that draws closer as the story develops. The rest of the cast takes on various roles of people, past and present, who have influenced Justin as he and George explore how to complete his quest.
The music is woven into the story, the lyrics driving the plot forward with a combination of explosive intensity, wonder, and heart. The opening number, “This Town,” brings out the anger and angst the kids feel. They are struggling to deal with the losses of friends or family they’ve endured, and the lack of understanding they see from their town. The choreography punctuates their words in sharp, stylized movements that are nicely synchronized.
The middle of the song shifts to a lilting ballad sung by Justin and George, clearly caring for one another and sharing their wonder of the stars as a portent of things to come. After they leave, the angst-ridden ensemble reprises the theme at the top to finish the number.
Later in Act 1, as Justin tries to explain to George what he’s learned in his exploration about the attitudes toward depression (a leading predecessor of intentionally dying), the company bursts forth with the song, “Good Luck With That.” The song lampoons medicine’s practice to treat or cure pretty much any ailment, save for depression. In this number, Justin is a doctor treating everyone’s ills, except his younger self when he asks for help. The song is fast-paced, the dance is frenetic and exciting, and the message is clear.
Throughout the performance, Molaei’s choreography shines. His design is varied and challenging, but the cast is on top of it, executing each move with precision and confidence, greatly intensifying the feelings expressed in the lyrics.
The title number, “It’s a Beautiful Glass,” near the end of Act 1 is especially poignant. Justin’s grandfather (played by Molaei) launches into a lovely melody sharing a wondrous philosophy of life. Justin joins him in song until, in a particularly nice display of his abilities, the grandfather rises from his wheelchair and dances a solo showing great fluidity and artistry, bringing into motion the feelings expressed in the lyrics. After the dance, the two continue in a vocal duet, bringing the song to a heartfelt conclusion as the grandfather sits back down, and Justin replaces the shawl over his grandfather’s shoulders.
Shaindlin’s portrayal of Justin throughout the story makes him human, and very likable, despite a few social quirks. He makes the audience grow to really care about him, almost as much as George does. And Liberatore’s portrayal of George is gripping. Her character’s intelligence comes through. Their scenes together are often simultaneously touching and amusing, which is all the more impressive when dealing with some very serious topics. The imagery they invoke is vivid, even before other cast members step in to act out their discussions.
There are some time shifts that occur throughout the story, but suffice it to say that the historical references used are both intriguing and enlightening, though a fair amount of poetic license is at play. Originality is evident in the unusual way that the story is told.
The set is simple – just a few benches sit stage right and stage left, along with a large upstage set piece that is rotated to either be a schoolyard bench, or a hollowed out tree for George’s telescope. The Mountain View CPA’s Second Stage theatre set up is a black box with seating on three sides of the performance area. The compact band is located upstage left.
To save space, Willits uses a cajón (drum box) in place of a standard drum kit. In addition to being extremely compact, the cajón, which originated in Peru, is perfect for small, mostly acoustic combos as it blends nicely with the other instruments without overpowering them. It can be played with hands, or brushes, depending on the effect desired.
Preshow, the band, with Hooshmand on piano, plays a number of contemporary, and jazz standards, quietly setting the mood for the performance. During the performance, there were times when only one or two instruments are used, such as solo violin accompanying a solo singer, or guitar and drums punctuating a small subset of the ensemble. Overall, the level of musicianship is high, although there is some momentary, unintended dissonance between acoustic instruments.
Some of the members of the ensemble are stronger than others, and while they all handle the movement beautifully, there are a few times when some words are lost due to lack of projection, sloppy diction, or flat delivery. Overall though, the actors still put great emotion and definition into each of their characters.
A Beautiful Glass takes a serious subject, and comes at it from all sides helping to both put things into a more accepting perspective, and driving home a message of hope, even in the face of despair. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty. It’s beautiful, and so is this production.
What: A Beautiful Glass, by Tony Kienitz
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View and Magic Theatre at Fort Mason Center, Bldg. D, 3rd floor, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco
When: San Francisco, 15-17 June 2016; Mountain View, 10-11, 18-19, 23-25 June 2016
See http://atheatrenearu.org/home/2014/12/26/a-beautiful-glass/ for more information. Order Mountain View tickets by phone at 650-903-6000 or online at http://mvcpa.com. Order San Francisco tickets online at http://abeautifulglass.bpt.me/.
(Photos courtesy of A Theatre Near U – Rob Wilen)