A thrilling exploration of desperation, family, and the female experience, “Crystal’s” excels based on the strength of the crackling tension among its characters. The play, which runs Sept. 25 to Oct. 3 in the Loeb Experimental Theater, features an superb original script by director Aislinn E. Brophy ’17.
“Crystal’s” borrows its title from the strip club in which it is set, but the play is not fundamentally about the club: The voyeurs and even the eponymous owner never appear and remain non-presences. Rather, the club is the crucible in which Brophy’s characters interact. The play follows four strippers, Angel (Liz P. Kantor ’18), Candy (Eliza B. Mantz ’18), Cynthia (Emily E. Bergquist ’18) and Marjorie (Julia E. Belanoff ’18); Candy’s son Johnny (Colin A. Mark ’17); and the club’s new manager, Al (Sam A. Hagen ’18). The characters, particularly the strippers, are refreshingly complex. Functioning as fully human characters, these women contradict prevailing stereotypes of strippers and resist easy categorization as tropes or deconstructions. Each line of Brophy’s script is effective; as the plot advances, the characters never stop developing. Under the pressures of mental illness, broken families, and poverty, they continue to twist and darken.
Al, the new manager, is the catalyst for the play’s action. More than any other character, Al serves to further the social commentary in Brophy’s script, but the subtlety of Hagen’s performance makes the character compelling regardless. Over the course of the play, Hagen artfully reveals the sinister underpinnings of Al’s nice-guy persona. Despite his initial awkwardness, Al quickly learns to take advantage of the inherent male manager-female stripper power dynamic, although not always with great success—in one remarkable scene, Angel overrides him with the sheer force of her personality.
The irascible Angel provides much of the play’s comic relief, due to the unflinching unpleasantness of Kantor’s portrayal. While out-loud laughs are rare, the play is darkly funny from start to finish. Calling attention to the tragic absurdities of sexism and poverty, “Crystal’s” invites the audience to bitterly chuckle with, not at, its characters, as they cope with the play’s weighty themes. This sort of bleak, cynical humor comes through the strongest in the character of Candy, the flighty, deeply troubled mother of Johnny. As Candy, Mantz performs admirably, somehow highlighting genuinely funny moments even in her character’s desperate circumstances. She dominates the stage as the conflicts between the characters converge into a seat-gripping climax—paradoxically, the funniest scene in the show.
The script’s strengths are complemented well by Brophy’s staging, which smartly reinforces the intersections and oppositions among characters that drive the show. The audience sits around an elevated “X,” which connects four squares that feature dancing apparatus. Although most of the action takes place near the center of the “X,” the strippers often retreat to their respective corners, where they belittle, interrogate, and console one another from across the stage. In addition to playing Candy, Mantz also designed lighting for “Crystal’s,” and her choices augment the sense of tension and discomfort.
Despite these successes, the play encounters difficulties at its conclusion. Due to the atmosphere created by the script, actors, and lighting, its tension builds to a nerve-wracking breaking point, but the resolution ultimately disappoints. Although the poetic final scene clearly intends to weave the play’s various strands together, it fails to do so in a thematically consistent way, rendering its meaning somewhat indecipherable.
Nevertheless, the play in its entirety is effective. Especially when the strippers dance—the same routine, increasingly mechanically, over and over—one can’t help but feel somewhat like a patron of the club, complicit in the objectification. That feeling is a great achievement, signifying that “Crystal’s” successfully links the extremes of the strip club’s power dynamics with the realities women confront daily. The play raises heavy questions: What is it to be a “nice guy?” Why are we so quick to call girls “stupid?” Why, as Al observes, does nobody care what happens in the near-lawlessness of the club? Brophy and the cast animate these questions with genuine humanity; as Brophy notes in her director’s statement, “When we are reminded of the humanity of women, the oppression that the female half of the world’s population faces seems senseless. And that is just what it is.”
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‘Crystal’s’ Offers Stripped-Down Take on IdentityIn her playwriting debut, director Aislinn E. Brophy ’17 brings stripping to Harvard. Revolving around the struggles of four female strippers, “Crystal’s,” Brophy’s latest production, will run Sept. 25-Oct. 3 in the Loeb Experimental Theater.
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