The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“Gloria, no one said enough is enough/
Gloria, they found you on the floor/
Gloria, my hand was tied to yours/
And, Gloria, did you finally see that enough is enough”
– The Lumineers, “Gloria”
Watching Gloria, one can’t help but think of Eminem’s latest album. Once the enfant terrible of the music industry, the Grammy-winner in his mid-40s is in a state of his career that reeks of desperation. He’s still tossing out homophobic slurs at fellow rappers – most notably the openly bisexual Tyler, The Creator – in a market that’s far more sensitive and welcoming to LGBTQ+ performers. The across-the-board “dull surprise” reactions to his performance at this year’s Oscar ceremony all but officially committed him to that sad retirement village of has-been shockers who are now just sad middle-agers waxing nostalgic on when they stirred America’s ire. (Em probably plays shuffleboard with Axl Rose, Marilyn Manson, and Adam Corolla.)
Hopefully, he’ll save a place for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the rising star playwright whose fame has less to do with any creative mise-en-scène or clever turn-of-phrase, but entirely on a reliance on shock value. In An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins used the image of a lynched Black man the way anti-abortion activists use photos of dead babies. In Everybody, he used the inevitability of mortality to try and scare his audience in the manner of a Doomsday preacher. He commits his worst sin yet with Gloria, his would-be office dramedy. He commits the worst sin one could commit when creating dramatic works.
He commits the sin of dullness. Whereas the other two plays were offensive, Gloria’s far too boring to even pull that off. The first-half anyway. The second-half has more going for it, but not much.
Of course, one is hard-pressed to say exactly why the second-half is an improvement. You see, Jacobs-Jenkins has personally requested that we critics – and I’m quoting here – “refrain from including revealing aspects of the plot” in our reviews. Mind you, this isn’t a Hollywood-style media embargo or Hitchcock-esque “No one gets in to see Psycho once it’s begun” demand. This is merely a request that the playwright has made, one that we critics have every right to ignore in our reviews. The hilarious paradox of this request is that by following it and not detailing the plot, it just puts greater emphasis on the script’s other flaws. And there are many.
This production by the ACT has three saving graces: 1 – the usual high technical standards of the company; 2 – good direction by Cal Shakes’ Artistic Director Eric Ting; and 3 – two captivating performances, both by SF theatre’s own Lauren English. The first performance is as the eponymous Gloria, a meek wallflower whom costumer Christine Crook adorns in ugly sneakers, too-tight jeans, a pea-soup-colored oversized cardigan, and a wrinkled white shirt she must have slept in. (No one is credited for hair and make-up, but Gloria’s hair looks like that of someone who spit on their hand in lieu of pomade.) The other character is Nan, who is essentially Gloria’s Star Trek Mirror Universe twin: both are the same age and started at the company, but Gloria is still in her same position from 15 years ago, whereas Nan has her own corner office. Gloria is very much single and throws a house-warming party that only four people (total) attend, whereas Nan is (happily?) married and rubs elbows with publishing elite. Gloria is a fashion victim, whereas Nan is styled in haute couture, including one black dress with primary red crushed velvet pumps. (Seriously, Christine Crook does fantastic work for this show.)
The specific department of the publishing company for which these characters work is a magazine called Grid, though that name is never mentioned and only picked up from the past issues on the wall. What stories they publish is anyone’s guess, but everyone in the office hates one another. This is made abundantly clear from the opening lines of dialogue. Jacobs-Jenkins colors each and everyone of them with such irredeemable disdain that you’d think he were competing with Bret Easton Ellis. There’s would-be ingenue Ani (Martha Brigham, who co-starred with English in last year’s excellent production of Cry it Out), Gay misanthrope Dean (Jeremy Kahn of Berkeley Rep’s Office Hour), plucky intern Miles (newcomer Jared Corbin), and walking exposition dump Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah). Kendra is Jacobs-Jenkins’ ultimate red-herring in his not-mentioned-here plot: she’s the sort of uber-bitch one hopes will die in a slasher flick. Whereas put-upon Lorin (Matt Monaco) is the guy you want to see live to the end.
These characters begin the play superficially horrible, then enter Act 2 exposing themselves to be even worse than we’d first grasped. In-between, Jacobs-Jenkins uses them as inhuman mouthpieces through which he can rant about the decline of print media, White privilege, online “influencers”, and whether being told one resembles someone else is a compliment or not. All of this is sound and fury signifying nothing.
But Eric Ting does his skillful best to turn the nothing into something. At times, he seems as impatient with the text as the audience, as he has his actors speed through the dialogue as if their tongues were on fire. He and movement coach Danyon Davis at least know how to choreograph around Lawrence Moten’s detailed office set (little details like Ani’s Playbill-laden desk say more about the character than the text ever does). Yet, it’s when Ting directs the actors to merely sit in one spot that they most often thrive. Not just at their desks, but an extended sequence at a Starbucks feels almost claustrophobic in its intimacy. Madeleine Oldham’s sounds are easy to overlook, what with the play leaning heavily on dialogue only. Still, both acts begin with characters listening to classical music on headsets (was one the theme to Masterpiece Theatre?) until other characters yell at them. And little touches such as winter breezes and very light Xmas music are excellent showcases for Oldham’s skills.
It’s these technical triumphs that keep Gloria from being a complete waste. Jacobs-Jenkins chose to set his play in the rapidly-evolving publishing industry because the value of telling stories is something that interests him. All of his plays thus-far have emphasized the value of telling stories and later making them your own. But therein lies the other paradox, both of Gloria as a play and Jacobs-Jenkins as a writer: he has yet to learn how to tell a compelling story. And he doesn’t seem to want to. Instead, he’s content to rely on shocks the way M. Night Shyamalan and David Mamet lazily rely on out-of-nowhere twists.
It’s almost as if Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is the last person who should be telling his own stories.
Gloria is scheduled to run until the 12th of April at the Strand Theater in San Francisco
The show runs roughly over 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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