‘Shifting Spaces’ expands accessibility of theater despite narrative missteps

Shifting Spaces
W. Newton/Courtesy

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“I don’t have words for my anger,” echo three actresses portraying the three stages of life, repeating themselves, over and over again, as the lights brighten to a vibrant red.  

Their scene, “vessels,” opens a series of three one-act shows collectively called “Shifting Spaces,” presented by Those Women Productions. The three shows seek to reflect varying feminist perspectives in a wide range of styles.

Despite the admirable and important narratives that the performances attempt to convey, they ultimately falter in execution, lacking the substance necessary to become deeply resonate works of theater.

Throughout the course of “vessels,” set during World War II, the actors analyze Hitler’s apathy toward queer women in his execution of gay and bisexual men. The show provides insight into the subtler oppression of lesbians during the Holocaust in an experimental manner, making use of spoken word and personifying time.

While the play offers an interesting perspective into underrepresented narratives from wartime, it lacks a focused message. The fact that lesbianism was not taken seriously by those in power in Nazi Germany is a compelling point. However, the play’s lens of lesbians’ “lack” of persecution during the Holocaust is both inane and morally objectionable.

Overall, the story suffers because of its overwrought staging elements, such as its emphasis on spoken word — which often becomes overdone periods of word association.  

Nevertheless, Jean Cary provides an empowered presence as the age range 25-54, referred to as “everything in between” birth and death. Cary appears wholly connected and intertwined with her character, portraying a unique sense of comfort onstage that is largely missing from the other performers.

The second show, “Revelation,” offers the night’s comedic relief. It tells the story of Mary and John, two lovers who were separated early in life and reunited in purgatory. While John (Lijesh Krishnan) died young in a car accident, Mary (Jeannie Barroga) died after a long, full life.

Conceptually, the play is strong, and its narrative is compelling. The scripted dialogue engages audiences through quick, witty banter and comical generational misunderstandings. Yet when combined with its fantastical plot, the show features relationship dynamics that stray too far outside of the realm of reality.

For characters who are supposed to have once been madly in love, the actors lack any semblance of chemistry. The script affords no glimpse into the love that they shared when they were younger, as their conversation is colored almost exclusively by their bitterness and distaste for one another.

This gives the performance a distinctly disconnected feel, which makes it difficult to care about the characters and their relationship. While physical touch or dialogue indicative of a stronger shared history could easily mend this aspect, the audience simply receives a cultural clash between men and women before and after second-wave feminism.

W. Newton/Courtesy

W. Newton/Courtesy

The final show, “They/Them,” tells the story of Sam (Gabby Momah), a Black transgender man who tells his mother (Jasmine Williams) that he is going to surgically transition the next day. Both of the main actors in “They/Them” provide emotionally raw performances  — Williams manages to portray an out-of-touch mother as deeply sympathetic. The hurt and the longing for understanding by Momah are palpable.

However, for a one-act show, the work tries to accomplish far too much in limited time. Because of this effort, connections between characters are weak and underdeveloped, and the pacing of the show is uneven.

The conversation between Sam and his mother lasts the majority of the show, with a separate conversation with his father and a tearful closing monologue tacked on to the end. The performance ultimately shows itself to be static, with all of the characters’ transformations shoved into the third act with little build.

Featuring diverse narratives from underrepresented demographics in theater expands the accessibility of performing arts. In order to physically manifest its mission statement, Those Women Productions has a “radical hospitality” policy that makes it so patrons can pay whatever they can afford.

“Shifting Spaces” suffered from its clunky and transparent storytelling. But despite its shortcomings, the performance is still successful in its mission to offer space for multiple feminist perspectives. Both “vessels” and “They/Them” were world premieres, demonstrating the novelty of the perspectives advanced.

Platforms for innovation and expansion should be supported in order to continue the growth and development of these glorious, shifting spaces — spaces the show paves the way in celebrating.

“Shifting Spaces” runs through April 8 at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theater.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected].