Art Matters: Thoughts on Indecent – July 28, 2017

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Despite the play’s title, Indecent, written by Paula Vogel, is about the purity of the Arts, and the struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of intolerance. Issues of antisemitism, homophobia and censorship in the midst of political and social uncertainty resonate throughout the play, and are as relevant in 2017 as they were in 1923, when much of the play takes place. I’m not as frequent a playgoer as I probably should be, as I tend to gravitate towards musicals (in fact, this is the first Broadway play I’ve seen this year thus far, as my fixation on Sunset Blvd. commandeered my theater going attention for the entirety of its limited run), the word of mouth about Indecent piqued my interest, along with my ongoing endeavor to expand my theatrical experiences.

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This experience far exceeded that objective.

The play recounts the controversy surrounding God of Vengeance written by Sholem Asch in 1907, set in a brothel which included a love scene between two women. While popular and accepted across Europe, its Broadway run in 1923 had been deemed obscene, with all those involved with the production arrested and convicted of obscenity. The play runs under two hours (with no intermission), yet the events within span over several decades across Europe and America, telling the impact one play had within world history.

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The overall set design is sparse, with the cast initially seated on the stage, with a trio of musicians – violin, clarinet and accordion – among the actors. Music is interwoven into the play, as underscoring and as commentary to the events unfolding, which enhance the tension. There are projected stage directions that impart to the audience the passage of time to give context to the scenes, both in English and Yiddish, the original language in which God of Vengeance was written. The framework of Indecent starts off as a play within a play, with Lemml, the stage manager, introducing the cast and setting the scene; the projected narration takes over, and the cast inhabit the role of the actors playing the play within the play. There is a raised platform in the middle of the stage on which the actors depict the play, with the surrounding area of the stage acting as the backstage area. The cast is astounding as a whole, imparting humor and anger with equal passion, as conflict over art and acceptance is debated. Language plays an important role as well – while the bulk of the play is spoken in English, the narrative projections tell in which language the characters are speaking, and the cast adjusted accordingly.

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The stage door experience was low key, as not too many people gathered to meet the actors, which was a blessing, as those who waited were able to chat with the actors (or in my case babble quasi-inarticulately, as the conclusion of the play boggled my mind – in a good way) while signing playbills.

The impact of this play will haunt me for days (and weeks) to come, as a gamut of emotions played within me like a symphony: there were moments of levity, outrage and ultimately sadness, as tears fell uncontrollably as the “blinks in time” passed. I was not the only one – several people around me were equally moved. That oft-used saying that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (I think that’s how the quote goes) rings true, as current events show that there are some who don’t (or refuse to) learn from history.

Change can only happen if people learn to embrace differences, to unlearn the stereotypes imparted by generations that came before them and to accept the fact that there is infinite complexity in the human race.

Indecent had announced its closing date of June 25, 2017, but word of mouth about the play allowed its run to extend to August 6, 2017. I highly recommend seeing this play, as it is a worthwhile examination of why Art Matters more than ever.

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Abuse of Authority: Thoughts on the staged reading of You Don’t Know How It Feels – April 8, 2017

It’s true – I don’t know how it feels.

I can’t even properly process what I felt when I saw the staged reading of Kelley Blessing’s play You Don’t Know How It Feels, which tackles the issue of child sexual abuse from the victim’s perspective – the loss of innocence, the stigma of shame and (eventual) road to recovery. The conflicting, often confusing emotions associated with such a heinous act is unfathomable to comprehend from an outside perspective, yet there are far too many people who know how this feels. Sexual abuse happens and can happen anywhere and to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, yet it is often not discussed in public.

This play aims to break that silence.

I was invited to reading by Kelley, which took place at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre presented by Darknight Productions. While I’ve read many of her other works (often as a quasi-dramaturge / editor) and attended a staged reading of a musical she co-wrote (The Sounds of Screams), this would be a totally different experience, as You Don’t Know How It Feels is semi-autobiographical.

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[Disclaimer: Kelley has been a friend of mine for many years, with whom I’ve shared many theatrical experiences as audience members, yet I was unaware of this traumatic incident that happened long before I met her. It had not crossed my mind to ask, and I suppose it’s not something she would willingly share. I’m debating whether or not to follow up this entry with an in-depth interview / discussion about the process of writing this play. Our friendship started with our mutual love of musical theatre (and Sherlock Holmes), and remained jovial through the years, so I would not want to inadvertently trigger any additional trauma (if that’s the right term) by having her revisit those memories. Then again, the purpose of writing this play is to give a voice to the voiceless, so this story needs to be told.]

The play takes place in a middle school gymnasium and focuses on the interactions of high school track teacher Nick McCoe with three of his students – Dena, Sara and Devon, as well as with the principal, Frank Stanley. The interactions between McCoe and his students seem harmless at first, then turns sinister, as he targets Dena, and manipulates her into keeping his subsequent assaults a secret. The resolution in the play is fairly optimistic, as Sara and Devon, Dena’s best friend and boyfriend, respectively, discover the root cause of her mood swings, report their findings to Principal Stanley and McCoe is exposed (no pun intended) for his crimes.

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As it was a staged reading, the actors had scripts in hand, and as it was the first reading, much of the dialogue came across as stage dialogue rather than natural speech. Gabriel Morales perhaps had the most difficult role in playing Mr. McCoe, juggling the Jekyll and Hyde personas of the helpful teacher and manipulative predator with subtle stealth so as to break the façade he created. As Dena, Jadelee Vega had an equally difficult task of portraying the range and depth of emotion required to recount this harrowing experience. The overall design was effective – the set design sparse, the lighting design reflective of Dena’s inner turmoil and the sound design jarring as it should be. While the subject matter was disturbing, it was not overt, as the instances of assault occurred off stage.

There was a talk back with the cast and creative team with the invited audience encouraged to give feedback to the piece. Constructive criticism was presented, along with insight from the cast and creative team with regards to the process of developing the play. There is great potential for this play to have a future in a broader venue, as the issue of sexual assault, especially against children, is a crime gaining attention as victims are coming forward to tell their story, bringing awareness so as to (hopefully) prevent them from happening, and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

This is a start.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or know someone who may be, please contact RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit www.rainn.org

For more information sexual assault, rape and incest, visit www.joyfulheartfoundation.org 

So Many Dreams to Tease the Heart: Musings on the First Preview Performance of Sunset Boulevard – February 2, 2017

Sunset Boulevard has come home at last.

As mentioned early on in this blog, Sunset Boulevard is one of my all-time favorite musicals, based on the 1950 film of the same name about the Hollywood studio system’s treatment of a faded movie star and a jaded writer. I’ve been a fan of the musical since its inception back in the early 1990’s, and followed all the off stage drama that occurred back then (reference in an early blog post here). The initial Broadway production ran a little of three years, closing in 1997, and there had been two touring productions not too long after its closure (I had seen the second touring production in 2000 in Boston). While there had been regional productions across the US and overseas in the ensuing years, the first major revival was in 2016 with a semi-staged production in London at the ENO (English National Opera) starring Glenn Close, who originated the role on Broadway. After its successful run in London, it seemed only a matter of time when that production would find its way to New York, and is now currently playing at the Palace Theatre (a few blocks away from its original home, the Minskoff) for a sixteen week run, with the four leads from London reprising their roles on Broadway.

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As mentioned earlier, I had been fortunate enough to see the original production, (though not with Glenn Close) with Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige on Broadway, and the second US National Tour with Petula Clark. Knowing beforehand that the revival would be semi-staged with a 40-piece orchestra on stage, I was curious to see how it would be done (I had not been able to fly to London last year to see that production), as the original production had opulent sets at its core, and the second US National Tour had a scaled down set design which didn’t quite match the grandeur of the original production. The overall set design for the current production had an industrial feel, with a maze of staircases and balcony landings and furniture brought on and off the set by the cast. Per the press releases and various online interviews with director Lonny Price, this semi-staged production was meant to look more like the backlot of a Hollywood set, wherein Joe Gillis would narrative the events as if it were scenes from a movie. This is emphasized with the use of black and white film clips (I’m not sure if they were from specific films or just old news reel footage) projected onto a scrim. Also, the clever use of lighting to shift from Norma’s house to Paramount Studios, gave the illusion of a multitude of different sets.

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This is the third first preview performance I’ve seen thus far in my theater-going experience, and the third time seeing the revival of a show of which I saw the original production as well (I hope that made sense). The cast was amazing and hearing this Andrew Lloyd Webber score (with new orchestrations) performed by a 40-piece orchestra was thrilling – I sincerely hope a new cast recording is made. Glenn Close received a thunderous entrance ovation and a standing ovation after “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (with another rousing ovation after singing the line “I’ve come home at last”). As this production aimed to be a stripped down version of itself, it worth noting that Ms. Close’s portrayal of Norma Desmond has also been toned down – this Norma Desmond is not as overly melodramatic (through there are moments of melodrama) as before, making her less of a monstrous figure and more of a real person clinging on to her illusions of grandeur. Michael Xavier was brilliant as Joe Gillis narrating his story with equal amounts of charm and cynicism – in this production he also serves as the director of the story, cueing scene transitions and observing almost abstractly at the events of which he experienced as they were unfolding. The story of Sunset Boulevard is more about Joe, and it’s taken me this long to realize that Joe is on stage throughout the entire show up until (spoiler alert) he’s shot dead and falls into the swimming pool (also inventively staged).

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The stage door was packed, and I didn’t stay too long – the crowds were overwhelming and it was a chilly night – but I did manage to see some of the ensemble cast, who were elated by the audience response. Needless to say I’ll be seeing Sunset many, many times in the next sixteen weeks, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to meet the cast. I really hope a new cast recording is made, and perhaps a film adaptation (preferably with this cast). While the ticket prices are steep (but then again, it’s s limited run, so I guess its justified) there are $42 rush tickets available (though not specified in the ads, the rush seats are for the rear mezzanine and balcony), and they won’t be at the TKTS booth (per the box office person with whom I spoke).

Opening night is February 9th.

For more information, visit: http://sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/

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Principles of Uncertainty: Thoughts on Heisenberg – October 8, 2016

Like death and taxes, there is a level of certainty in the existence of uncertainty in all aspects of life. No one really knows how situations will turn out until they unfold, and random encounters can lead to unexpected relationships. The theme of uncertainty is explored in Heisenberg, written by Simon Stephens, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from now until December 11, 2016.  I obtained tickets via my usual source (the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Grand Auction), and were actually the only “real” tickets I won that day (the rest were vouchers); it was also my first time seeing a show at the Friedman, a theater associated with the Manhattan Theatre Club.

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Heisenberg explores the interactions between two people – Georgie and Alex – and how an impetuous, random act binds them together, with unexpected results and unintended revelations. The premise is based upon (and indirectly refers to) the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa” (description pulled from Wikipedia, which had the most straightforward, not-too-technical definition I could find). The notion that there is an inverse relationship of knowing about different aspects of someone (as it is in this play) is interesting in that the honing in on one facet of a person obscures the ability to see the “big picture”. Truth becomes subjective upon the perspective and perception of what is revealed, bringing forth doubts on the validity of the revelations and the motivations behind them. The prospect of the unknown looms throughout, as the interactions between Georgie and Alex play out as expected, until it doesn’t. There are levels of ambiguity about what actually happens throughout the play and how it ends, but in light of the Uncertainty Principle, that’s probably the intention of the play – to spotlight the nature of uncertainty that is life.

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The overall scenic design of the play is inventive and fitting, given the subject of the play – while the theater has a traditional proscenium configuration, there is onstage seating – about ten rows seating 200 people on stage. The actual space from which the actors perform becomes a narrow strip, with minimal set pieces and occasional props; there are no real costume changes per se, aside from the addition of jackets worn at several points during the play. With the onstage seating and small theatre space available for the actors to tell their story, it makes the play all the more intimate, with the ability for the audience to view the story from different perspectives. Mary Louise Parker and Denis Arndt were phenomenal as Georgie and Alex, respectively; their interactions, mostly through quasi-rambling monologues were revelatory as their relationship grew from mild annoyance to a kind of co-dependency. Aside from a brief snippet of music about which the pair conversed, there was silence – awkward pauses in between the verbal exchange which enhanced the scenes between the unlikely pair.

The show is currently in previews (it open on October 13th) and after the matinee performance there was a talk back with the associate director about the themes proposed in the one act, hour and twenty-minute play. During the talk back, the audience members who remained had contrasting opinions about the characters and their motivations, based on their individual perspectives and (probably preconceived notions), which further enhances the impact of the play. With the talk back (which I didn’t know they had until it was announced before the show’s start), I didn’t have an opportunity to stage door (though the security person at the stage door did inform those who did try that the two actors would not be coming out to sign playbills and such – also, it was a rainy afternoon, so I can’ really blame them for not wanting to “brave the elements”, as they had another performance that evening).

In conclusion, Heisenberg is an interesting play that makes you wonder about the essence of uncertainty and examine the consequences to even the most random of actions. Uncertainty will always exist, and the more attention you focus on one aspect of a situation, you might get blind-sighted by something else, which could (and just might) change your perceptions about the situation as a whole. Or at least that’s my own perception of it all. It’s a worthwhile play to see, and the very notion of uncertainty is highly relevant in these uncertain times.

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Once-a-Year Day – Adventures at the Broadway Cares /Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Grand Auction

Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is a stellar organization that supports a variety of social causes, and has a multitude of fundraising events throughout the year. One of their most popular events is the annual Flea Market & Grand Auction, held on the last Sunday in September, often referred to as “Broadway Christmas”, as fans can obtain almost everything theatre related, from vintage and contemporary playbills and /or posters (signed and unsigned) to prop pieces and costumes worn on stage, as well as the typical flea market items (books, CDs, and baked goods). There’s also an autograph table with a rotating list of theater actors, a silent auction for unique (usually signed) items, and the Grand Auction, where extraordinary experiences such as walk-on roles for specific shows, backstage tours and opening night tickets for next season’s shows are up for the bidding. The Flea Market & Grand Auction starts at 10 AM and ends at 7PM (the Grand Auction starts around 5PM – I think. I never stick around to watch the Grand Auction, as it’s somewhat distressing to not be able to afford the starting bid for such unique experiences; besides, by that time I’m usually exhausted and out of funds.)

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There are a multitude of tables, most of which are show specific, selling memorabilia from their shows, but by far my favorite table is the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table, where you can win a pair of tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway (and sometimes off-off Broadway) shows. It’s one of the most popular tables, and (in my opinion) one of the most addictive, and probably one that raises a lot of money. The premise is simple: there are three medium sized containers full of (stapled) raffle tickets; if one of the raffles has a winning stamp, you are awarded a white envelope with a pair of tickets, or a voucher good for two tickets. The envelopes are sealed, and are randomly selected by the volunteers working the table, so there’s a level of suspense and (sweet) anticipation of finding out the winning show. Then there’s the “trading pen” – well it’s it’s not really a pen per se, but it is a quasi-contained and designated area where raffle winners confer with one another to maximize their winnings by either straight trading for different shows or change show dates. It’s a kind of networking and semi-collaborative effort to get the shows (and the date) you want, and a pretty good way to get to know fellow fans.

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I’ve mentioned the BC/EFA and its Flea Market & Auction in most of my entries, as it’s usually the source of where I’ve obtained tickets to the many shows I’ve seen (and blogged about) thus far. I’ve attended the Flea Market & Auction for the past fifteen years, and in recent years I’ve spent the bulk of my day actively participating in the TDF table, usually winning a multitude of tickets every year, sometimes making good trades, and sometimes not (depending on which shows I’ve won and my willingness to trade). I also spend the day perusing the other tables picking up interesting trinkets or CDs, almost always taking copious amount photos of items for sale (for posterity), wishing I had the funds to purchase them. Even though there are designated tables where credit cards are accepted, I always bring a set amount of cash with me, thus limiting my spending ability (and to ensure that I don’t bankrupt myself inadvertently). It’s also a day on which I can easily see friends I’ve met through the various shows I’ve seen (usually bonding at the stage door), friends I’ve known since high school and “friends” I’ve encountered and interacted with at the TDF table (usually in the trading area.

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As it’s an outdoor event literally in and around Shubert Alley, weather is a key element. The weather is almost always fair in temperature, sometimes with overcast skies; sometimes it’s warmer than usual and sunny. There was one year when it was indoors (at the now closed) Roseland Ballroom due to the torrential rain. In years past, West 44th Street was closed off so that the entire street (and sidewalks on either side were full of people looking for great deals on theatre-related items, which resulted in congestion and crowds around the more popular tables. There had been a few years when the pedestrian areas in the middle of Times Square were used to station tables, which spread out the Flea Market experience. The 2016 Flea Market was different than it had been in previous years in that only half of West 44th Street was cordoned off for tables, allowing for ongoing (one way) traffic the other half of the street. The flea market then wrapped around to West 45th Street with the same configuration, and was limited to that city block; Shubert Alley remained in use as it always had been, and the use of the pedestrian areas in Times Square proper were not utilized. I suppose this was done to ease traffic (for cars and people alike) in the area, as Times Square is already a popular and (usually) overpopulated area on any good day.

It’s always a fun day and a great start to the new Broadway season. As the title of this entry says, it’s my Once-a-Year Day, where I have loads of fun, meet up with friends and find the most unique theater-related items (and win lots and lots of show tickets). All the proceeds go to a worthy cause and helps scores of people throughout the City and across the country. For more information about Broadway Cares and the other Events it holds, visit their website: https://broadwaycares.org/

The Old Razzle Dazzle: Thoughts on Takarazuka Chicago – July 23, 2016

Music is often called the universal language, with its unique ability to invoke emotions and / or memories (good, bad or neutral) shared by a wide cross section of people, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Musicals have that similar pull, even if the score is sung in a different language that one’s own native tongue; while some of the lyrics might not be exactly the same, the overall theme remains intact. I don’t often get an opportunity to see familiar musical performed in different languages (though I have listened to non-English cast recordings), I was intrigued by the production of Chicago performed by Takarazuka Revue, a Japanese, all female theatrical company, finishing its limited run today at the David H. Koch Theater, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.  More information about Takarauka can be found on their website: https://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/

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The overall design was the same as the current Broadway revival, which is now the longest running American revival in Broadway history, celebrating its 20th year on Broadway. Its minimalist set design, limited use of props and practical costumes allows the actors’ performances to shine and the songs to be the centerpiece. The story of Chicago is about the trials and tribulations of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two “merry murderesses” and the hoopla around creating celebrities from known criminals. The show’s themes have a such a timeless quality and omnipresent relevance that it’s revelatory that the original production was four decades ago – John Kander and Fred Ebb were certainly visionaries in that respect (of course, all their collaborations are brilliant).

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The all-female cast of the Takarazuka Revue was astounding, and the choreography meticulously synchronized; stand outs among the leading cast were Natsuki Mizu as Velma Kelly, Yuga Yamato as Roxie Hart and Saki Asaji as Billy Flynn. As the entire show was in Japanese, there were super titles above the stage so the non-Japanese speaking audience could follow along, though I was quite familiar with the songs (and much of the spoken dialogue) that I focused more on the performance and less on reading the super titles. Per their tradition, after the curtain call, there was the “Takarazuka Encore” – a spectacle wherein the cast performs a medley of songs (in English and in Japanese) with lavish costumes and brilliant choreography.

 

Overall, it was a different yet familiar experience of a story that serves as a reflection of society today and reminder of the fleeting nature of celebrity and the power of the press. I would love to see other productions from this amazing troupe of performers, and hope they will return to New York in the near future.

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All About Love – Thoughts on One Love

Love is a complex emotion. Whether it’s platonic, romantic, or something in between, the path to finding love is fraught with misconceptions, both from within and without. The perceptions/illusions one has about themselves relative to those around them is and can be a stumbling block along that path, and the task of letting go of those preconceived notions is its own journey towards  self-discovery. These themes are explored in One Love, the latest play written by Peter Zachari, which recently ended its run at the Theater for the New City.

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[Disclaimer: Those who have followed this blog will know that I’m good friends with Peter Zachari and Joey Mirabile; who I met 5 years ago when Peter’s first show Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey To the End of the Rainbow premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival. Since then, I’ve been a (minor) investor to Peter’s subsequent shows, and have written (independently) my musings for all the shows that have played in NYC.]

The play centers on Hunter, an overweight gay man, and his journey of finding (and accepting) love into his life. Due to the emotional baggage he carries from a relationship gone wrong, mixed with a kind of self loathing stemming from his physical appearance, he denies himself any chance of pleasure – even in his fantasies. His roommate Bryce is the antithesis of Hunter, indulging in pleasure wherever he can, with no (apparent) emotional baggage. An impromptu dinner with friends Brett and Tyler, coupled with the unexpected appearance of Logan (Tyler’s cousin) serves as the catalyst for Hunter to reexamine his self-imposed perceptions. He (eventually) learns to confront the demons keeping him from accepting the fact that he is worthy of love and being loved, with the help of Aftodite, an omnipresent and (seemingly) omniscient presence in Hunter’s life.

While I’ve been quite the fangirl for Peter’s shows, One Love is the first play for which I was an unofficial dramaturge, reading an early draft (originally written a few years ago) and providing some (useful) feedback (and pointing out some spelling/grammatical errors (as an aspiring writer, editing was second nature.) The themes set forth in the play are universal and touch upon the media fixation (obsession?) on perpetuating the image of “perfect” (i.e. thin, “beautiful”) people, and the insecurities faced by those who don’t fit the “socially accepted” definition of beauty.

There’s a quasi-meta aura in the set design, as it was modeled (loosely) on Peter’s own apartment, with the walls dotted with photos of Judy Garland, and glitter pop art pieces (created by cast member Joey Mirabile). Other pop culture (and topical) references are sprinkled throughout as well, with notable pop songs (and an original song written by Peter and his long time collaborator Damon Maida) adding to the overall feel of the play. The cast was fantastic, inhabiting the social stereotypes their characters represented, then gradually stripping away that façade to show their true self and learning to be comfortable in their own skin (so to speak). Kudos to Alex J. Moreno as Hunter and Russell Norris as Bryce for the emotional range they traverse, from comic to dramatic (and back), revealing their insecurities before finding a kind of happy ending.

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One Love is a play about love in all its forms – platonic love between good friends, romantic love for another person, and love for oneself, overcoming obstacles, both real and perceived. Everyone is worthy of love and being loved, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or religious beliefs. In a way, love is blind – blind to prejudices of every kind. Or at least real love should be – the trick is to let go of the preconceived assumptions created (and perpetuated to some degree) by what media (social and otherwise) has deemed “normal” and “beautiful”.

Only then can there truly be One Love.

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