“It ain’t about nothing else except getting out alive.” When Lethu A. Ntshinga ’18, as Zeus, growls these words late in the production of “Polaroid Stories,” it is easy to believe her. She and a number of other talented actors have spent the majority of the last two hours demonstrating just how hard surviving on the streets can be. The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s show, running from Oct. 21 to 29, is a gritty portrait of the lives of drug addicts and runaways. Set in the underbelly of an unnamed but menacing city, the show somewhat messily interweaves city life with classical themes drawn mostly from Ovid. While the nonlinear structure and conceptual ambition are overwhelming at times, director Jacqui Parker’s show, bolstered by its mostly freshman cast, forcefully imparts the pain and pathos of life on the street.
This year’s Visiting Director’s Project defies narrative convention, moving in a disjointed fashion from the story of one character to the next. “Polaroid Stories” is just that—snapshots from the lives of nine characters, all of whom wrestle with poverty and drug abuse. A tenth character, Philomel (Desmond L. Green ’17, Hannah Lemmons ’20, Sarah B. Rossman ’19, and Madeleine Snow ’20) plays the part of a chorus, whose echoing voice enhances the tension of a number of scenes. Inspired by the “Metamorphoses” and interviews conducted with prostitutes and homeless youth, “Polaroid Stories” does its best to meld the drama of classical myth with the real-life turmoil of destitution. Sometimes the idea falls flat, especially within dialogue, where classical references dropped in between nearly constant slang and vulgarities feel forced. References are, for much of the production, a sufficiently minor part of the action that the play remains accessible to those who deferred to Sparknotes when Ovid appeared on the high school reading list.
Whatever Parker does conceptually, she has managed to pull impressive performances from the large cast. One particularly dynamic performance comes from Skinheadboy (Cole V. Edick ’17) as a reckless, joking speed addict; his acting hits its peak, as is often the case with performances in this production, with his monologue close to the end. Similarly, Rory Wakeford ’20 as Skinheadgirl successfully affects the terror of someone quickly losing herself to the life of the street. Also impressive is the raw, angry energy between the world weary Eurydice (Enosa Ogbeide ’20) and the raging, desperate Orpheus (Derek P. Speedy ’18), in a reimagining of the classical couple as a sketch of animosity and codependence. However, the show stealer is Semele/Persephone (Chloe A. Brooks ’19, an inactive Crimson arts editor), whose junkie snarl is frighteningly convincing. She also shines in lighter moments, as when playing off Dionysus (an energetic Julius Wade ’20). The back and forth between Narcissus (Bobby Malley ’20) and Echo (Rachel Kahn ’20) also helps to prevent the show from plunging too deeply into its darkest elements; their delivery and pace provide some of the most fun in this production. Rounding off the mains is Ntshinga as a leering version of Zeus whose saxophone skills provide some much needed comic relief in the second act.
The production features some bizarre special effects: Aggressive lighting changes flood the stage in blue or red light, the use of intermittent music continues between unconnected scenes, and the sound of a disembodied heartbeat is superimposed over dialogue. The number and nature of these theatrical tricks could have easily come across as gimmicky, but they are generally effective in setting a mood without obscuring the actors on the stage. The set is versatile and intelligently conceived; the stage is split between a park bench, a digital screen (used to incorporate video clips into the show), a pier, and a stripped down bedroom. The selection of these elements for the backdrop allows for a smooth transition between wildly disparate scenes.
“Polaroid Stories” can boast of excellent work from its ensemble in general, especially when given the opportunity to show off deftness in repartee or skill in monologue. Further, the unusual set and special effects underscore the acting rather than taking away from it. The structure, meant to consist of brief vignettes from the characters’ lives rather than a cohesive narrative arc, might leave audiences scratching their heads; but in the end, the scramble doesn’t take away from the power of the actors telling the story. The conviction and honesty with which the violence and ugliness of poverty and addiction are portrayed on stage overcome the faults of the production, illuminating just how complicated “getting out alive” is.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: October 27, 2016, at 10 p.m.
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Lethu A. Ntshinga ’18.
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