From the tumblr phenomenon “Disney Hipster” to the TV show “Grimm,” fairy tales seem to be everywhere these days. “Star Ash”—a new play by Cassandra L. Rasmussen ’13 running at the Loeb Ex from October 5-7 and October 11-13—explores how these stories have the potential to both bind people together and set them free. The play, which shuttles backwards and forwards in time, traces three generations of women in a single family, all linked by the story they tell in times of strife. While not without flaws, “Star Ash” succeeds in creating an air of the otherworldly, helped along by some solid acting and strong artistic decisions.
Like some arcane rite, the play begins with ringing bells that create a mystical tension in the air and sets the stage for what’s to come. From here the various threads of the story are introduced: Eva and Maja (Kathleen S. O’Beirne ’15 and Anissa Y. Mak ’13) are two sisters in 19th-century Europe about to separate forever. Helen (Charlene S. Hong ’14) is a mother during World War II struggling to keep her emotions in check and her child Angelica (Alona Bach ’16) in line. Jenny (Nancyrose Houston ’15) is a young woman in the present, grieving the recent death of her mother, Adela (Rachel A. Gibian ’15), and chafing under the unwelcome attention of her aunt Carmen (Lelaina E. Vogel ’15). The exact connection that the groups of women have to each other takes some time and mental effort to untangle, but one string remains constant: the fairy tale that is passed down from one generation to the next about a girl trying to reach the stars.
Hong, Bach, and Gibian gave far and away the strongest performances of the show. Hong plays Helen as woman pulled in every direction by different needs she can’t satisfy. Bach, as Angelica, is able to capture both moments of innocence and instances when, trying desperately to please her broken mother, she is forced to cast her childhood aside. “Why won’t you eat what I grow?” Hong wails, as she translates her daughter’s refusal to eat the vegetables she worked so hard to cultivate into an assault on her ability as a mother, at which point Bach sheepishly pipes up that the vegetables are moldy. Scenes like this, with Bach’s character trying desperately to keep Hong’s from cracking but succeeding only in making things worse, are electric in the hands of such capable actors. While some of the other pairings struggle to make their relationship and age difference believable, these two were utterly convincing.
Gibian is the other standout. Her character has already died by the time the play starts, but she haunts her daughter, speaking to her and calling her back to look further and further into the past. Her facial expression, tinged with sadness at all times, conveys the deeper emotions of her character even when she has no lines to speak.
Some smart choices in set design (by set designer Sarah M. Batista-Pereira ’13 and set adviser Christopher M. Wankel ’13) facilitate the play’s complex chronology. The present is grounded in a fully furnished kitchen placed at the back of the stage, but for scenes in the past, the actors step forward and perform things out in pantomime, acting out their actions instead of using props. The weighty physicality of the present against the ghostly spareness of the past is both an interesting contrast and a practical decision. The play hinges on the ability to move seemlessly from the present to the past, and the spartan set removes the need for disruptive set changes that would destroy the flow of the story. The use of paper screens, behind which “shadow plays” are performed add an aura of mystery. The imaginative design helps draw viewers in and gives the actors more freedom than a bulky conventional set would allow.
The play is not without flaws, however. The decision to dye pink streaks into Mak and O’Beirne’s intricate braids makes them look more like hipsters than women from the 1800s. And while there are plenty of great poetic lines, some of the metaphors seem forced from the mouths of Jenny and Carmen. Their ages are hard to get a handle on as well: if Jenny is old enough to have a full-time job, why does she act like a teenager? This confusion is largely due to Houston’s relatively weak performance: her portrayal of her character is one-dimensional ,pouty, and sarcastic.
“Star Ash” succeeds more in the avant-garde elements than in the conventional: while some of the modern domestic scenes may flag a little, the inventive staging, back-and-forth chronology, and poetry of the script succeed in casting a spell.