Arts, Culture & Entertainment

When the lights go out, the show must go on

A surge that took out the lighting at a closing weekend performance of IAMA Theatre Company’s ‘Celestial Events’ created a raw theatrical experience.

Kacie Rogers looks up at Jamie Wollrab who is flipping through her book manuscript.

It started like any other performance: the house filled with audience members, music scored the background and lights bathed the stage in a kaleidoscope of colors. As the clock ticked past the projected curtain time of the IAMA performance at The Actors Company, I started to realize the Friday, evening performance of “Celestial Events” had its own course ahead.

After waiting for more than 20 minutes, co-producer Geoffrey Rivas went center stage to tell us that they’d need t to restart the lighting board due to technical difficulties, effectively cutting all the lights for the show. As time passed, cast member Margaux Susi came out to inform the audience that there was a surge in the building and the lights would not be returning. She offered the following options: stay and watch the show with the house lights on or leave and return another time in its closing weekend. The audience ultimately chose the former, signaling their vote with applause.

As she left backstage, I prepared for raw theatre—the same kind seen in acting classes and workshops. And that’s exactly what we got, and something more.

The cast stands on various pieces of the set with their phones up and their lights on, pointed towards the sky.

The play began without lights dimming to indicate the start of the show. Instead, there were phones. The ensemble cast ventured throughout the space with phone flashlights paving the way in the space. I imagined that it was meant to be pitch black, with maybe a blue overlight bathing the stage in a subtle ominous glow. But I’ll never know, and I’ve concluded that’s okay.

While we could not ignore the artistry and importance of the lighting design by Briana Pattillo, the stripped-back production allowed both the story and the performances to shine through in an unexpected way. And in the end, I’m glad this was my experience of IAMA’s return to the stage.

I first encountered the company when I saw “Cult of Love” in 2018. The show, which was part of their “Seven Deadly Plays,” relied on the characters and the slowly building ensemble that playwright Leslye Headland created. The theatre company returned to those roots in “Celestial Events,” and the unexpected lighting mishap reminded me of it—and hopefully the actors too.

The newest ensemble play directed by Tom Amandes and Adrian Gonzalez felt like a love letter to theatre and warmed my heart as I realized that a show like this was exactly what I missed while we’ve been cooped up in our homes since May 2020. While the Coronavirus persists, we’ve adapted. Theatre is no different.

The show— a collaborative and devised effort with the cast and writers Deborah S. Craig, Christian Durso, Anna Rose Hopkins, John Lavelle and Adriana Santos—created vignettes out of encounters with strangers, friends and family. Each story led to a meteor shower that some of the characters planned to see by nightfall.

As the first pairing of Joy (Kacie Rogers) and Ralph (Jamie Wollrab) take the stage, Joy is full of excitement to see her professor out to see the shower that she forgets her phone light is still blinding his view. As she struggles to turn it off, a line about the difficulties of our advanced technology hit a little harder, spurring a chuckle out of patrons. Rogers was smart to emphasize the line as well, swinging her arms and gesturing to the sky—or in this case, the collection of fresnel lanterns and ellipsoidal spotlights.

Each storyline—consisting of a married couple preparing for divorce, two strangers stuck in an elevator, two sisters preparing to spread a lost one’s ashes, two friends readying a proposal and a married couple reminiscing on the old days—slowly make their way to each other.

Bailey sits on the ground in front of Ryan, trying to console him after a brief moment of panic.

The audience is incredibly close to the performance, so much so that when Eric (Ryan W. Garcia) and Dani (Bailey Humiston) debate and scheme their way to a proposal on rollerblades and a skateboard, their trips and glides on the floor feel like we’re eavesdropping on a tumbling duo on the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, a collective gasp rises out of the audience when a husband, Lenny (Alex Alcheh), gets in trouble with his wife Lena (Lexi Sloan) for his offensive comments on her breast milk. Each misstep and reconciliation of the two reminiscing on their 20s consumes the audience so much that each outburst from the crowd becomes part of the experience.

As with many IAMA shows, “Celestial Events” dips into comedy to find the heart of each relationship. Ariel (Andria Kozica) and Ilana (Margaux Susi), a soon-to-be-divorced couple, frequently reference a fictional show “Legal Med,” laughing along with the audience following a line about drying ink. Soon the idea of ink drying on a legal document landed stronger as the reality of their divorce set in.

By the end, there is meant to be a big finale made of a meteor shower. The ensemble looks out at the walls in amazement. There is a bright smile of excitement on their faces as they envision the stars. What was meant to be a lighting cue was not there, but its absence made it more magical. The entire show sets up the grand finale of shooting stars and outer space beauty. It was meant to be something tangible and real on the walls of the black box. Instead, we saw it through imagination. I believed it was there and I saw it with the characters. As they pointed and gasped at the stars, I envisioned it too: I saw raining bright white lights falling and multicolored auroras casting a backdrop on the shower. The endless rain felt like a crib mobile that swayed and drifted as my innocent hands tried to reach.

It felt real, and that is what theatre is meant to do. The art form consumes you into the story to the point where there is no other truth but the one playing in front of your eyes. IAMA made theatre take one deep breath in… and exhale.

I forgot the lights were out.

IAMA Theatre Company’s production of “Celestial Events” ran March 5-14 at The Actors Company in Hollywood.