Review: Pretty Fire at the IRT, Pretty Fabulous

Saturday night found me in the audience of the upper stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, as the Going Solo Festival kicked off this weekend with Pretty Fire. The Going Solo Festival is a new invention at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Of course, other regional theatres around the United States have thrown theatre festivals (i.e. the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville), but Going Solo is the first rolling repertory of plays presented at the Indiana Repertory Theatre in recent history. It is nice to see them offer theatre in a different kind of forum to Indianapolis people, and the festival deserves some buzz after the flagship performance from Millicent Wright in Pretty Fire.

The Going Solo festival will offer three one person plays from now until March 14, 2010. Charlayne Woodard’s Pretty Fire kicked off this Indianapolis festival, followed by The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and then After Paul McCartney by Indianapolis media personality David Hoppe of NUVO Newsweekly. Each offers characters which are vastly different and each is a memoir of sorts. Because the shows are shown in rolling repertory, it is possible to see all three in the span of a weekend (after February 24, 2010). The IRT hopes that the idea of “festival theatre” will encourage repeat attendance, as Hoosiers enjoy the latest offerings from this Indianapolis theatre.

Another effect of the rolling repertory is a shared space. Meaning one design team used their creative juices to create changeable looks in one space for three different stories. With scenic and lighting design from the Koharchik twins, Rob and Ryan, the visual is characteristic of the clean lines and functional playing spaces these designers have shown throughout the theatre season in Indianapolis (be it at Butler University, Indianapolis Civic Theatre or on stage at the IRT). Though we only see scenic designer Rob Koharchik’s set for one show at a time, plans for each transformation are shared in renderings included in the program. Each space uses the same elements to create different looks for each story, each with a different feeling and focus. Ryan Koharchik’s lights pair well with his brother’s set as he works to carve areas and create moods on a largely open stage. The IRT definitely kept this one in the family, for good reason!

Charlayne Woodard’s one actor play Pretty Fire is a simple story of one young African American girl’s childhood. As she faces bullies, racism, grandmothers, a little sister and the church youth choir, Charlayne Woodard’s words capture not only the universal experience of childhood and growing up, but also the difficult subject of learning to be unique and celebrating differences. In five parts, Woodard touches on a range of emotions. Birth is the telling of her difficult birth, as she “fell into her mothers hands.” The second story deals with the angst of growing up in an accelerated class, with classmates that fear her success. “Pretty Fire” is a one-two-punch of family love and Southern racism. “Bonesy” shares a deep dark secret, of the variety that everyone carries with them at some point in their life. And finally, “Joy” is an aptly named telling of the power of faith and family love.  The voices and characters Woodard creates in this one woman show are perfectly varied and distinctly portrayed by the oh-so talented Milicent Wright.

As the manager of outreach programs at the IRT, Milicent Wright is a familiar face on and off stage at the IRT. Having known her only briefly during my seven month tenure as an intern at the Indiana Repertory Theatre and having never seen her act before, I had no idea the depth of talent that lay beneath her wacky and welcoming exterior. Charlayne Woodard’s script was simply a perfect match for Milicent, whose boundless joy and love of life is hard (if not impossible) to ignore. It is clear that Wright brought many of her own life experiences on stage, making for a truly honest and enjoyable interpretation of Woodard’s own life.

The transformation Wright makes from her in person self to her on stage self was the first sign post that we, the audience, were in for a wonderful live experience. From an entrance with instant command of the stage, Wright puts her audience at ease, as if to say, “Relax and listen to the entertainment I am about to provide.” As she fully commits to the story of her birth, she effortlessly takes on the roles of pregnant mother hen and jazz cat father. Her transitions from one character to the other were well paced and seamless. By the time Act One was nearing its end, we had seen a whole population of characters from her Georgian Grandmother and her little sister Allie to uppity Southern neighbors and a playground chum slurring racial epitaphs. Wright pulls them all off with sensitivity, grace and even humor.

Even more touching is the sense of closeness Wright portrays with the story. Drawing on both universal ideas and personal experience, she creates a role that is completely unique. In five short stories, she takes us through not only Charlayne Woodard’s youth, but her own and, on top of that, our own. Never brow beating and always having fun, Wright gently guides us through the treacherousness of life, dropping jokes, hinting smiles and above all telling the truth. Wright is simply beautiful to watch on stage because she truly enjoys every minute that she shares with her audience.

Another factor in this wonderful one woman show is director Richard Roberts, who masterminded The Giver early this season at the IRT. If the Pretty Fire script was a perfect match for Wright, so was the choice to pair her with director Richard Roberts. As the resident dramaturg at the IRT, Roberts has an ongoing friendship with Wright (the outreach manager). In fact they even share a workspace. The synergy the two share was deeply apparent on stage, as Wright was given total freedom to experiment, play and fail on stage. Together the two seem to have mined for every possible moment in the show, making the final outcome richer than the thickest milkshake in the world.

Pretty Fire is a bold show that takes no prisoners and says farewell after each run to an audience rejuvenated by its honesty. The IRT should be proud of themselves for scheduling such a powerfully candid play in their season this year. I am certainly proud to see work like this being done on such a prominent stage in Indianapolis performing arts. But there is one thing I still have difficulty wrapping my head around: why did people leave at intermission? You heard right. Despite the brilliance in staging and performance that was Pretty Fire, a good number of people (at least in the row in front of me) left after the first Act.

The content at the end of Act One was challenging, but it is meant to be. Rich theatre ought to challenge audiences to change the way they seem themselves and the world around them. Pretty Fire most definitely does this. Had those patrons decided to bear through their uncomfortable feelings, they would have continued to experience a joyous show that holds a mirror to the face of Indianapolis society. I guess some people just don’t like what they see staring back at them.

For additional information about Pretty Fire at the IRT, visit their official website.

To make your outing in Indy complete, check out these Indianapolis restaurants or Indianapolis bars. Stay tuned to Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. We cover everything from Indianapolis attractions to Indianapolis sports. This is Katelyn Coyne saying, “Make the Circle City your playground this month at the IRT’s Going Solo Festival!”

Pretty Fire
Now through February 28, 2010

Indiana Repertory Theatre
140 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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