REVIEWS: Lighting Martha

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If you go to school for lighting design, you will be studying the work of Jean Rosenthal. So said the lighting designer for Lighting Martha in a talk back session following the show on Saturday night at Portland Stage Studio Theater. Playwright Carolyn Gage added that Rosenthal’s falling in love with Martha Graham, an icon of modern dance, was the catalyst for their lifelong collaboration, and is the reason that the position of lighting designer exists as it does today. Lighting Martha is set in 1969 New York in the waning days of Rosenthal’s life, and centers around the perspective of Miki, Rosenthal’s lesbian partner and lighting assistant. Miki takes us behind the curtain, revealing the contrast between the joyous grandeur of great art and the painful the realities of secret love, illness, jealousy, and loss. Wonderfully written and acted, Lighting Martha packs worlds into 30 minutes and is yet another reason why we need Fringe. (And the lighting was pretty good too.) Get out there and see it.

–MARK SHAUGHNESSY, PortFringe 2019 Review Team

An important play to see as Portland celebrates Pride, remembering the battles that were fought 50 years ago, not only Stonewall, but the intimate struggles, too. Set in spring of 1969, we are on the stage of City Center after the dress rehearsal for the opening of Martha Graham’s 35th season. Miki finishes the lighting design of her mentor and partner, the famous Jean Rosenthal, who is dying of cancer. In a era where lesbianism is a taboo subject, and women working in a traditionally men’s world is uncomfortable, this play explores the relationships of Miki and Jean, of Jean and Martha; about what is hidden, and what is brought into the light. The light was a character in the play, as much as the actors. This is quite a feat considering the ‘bare bones’ light plots Fringe festivals are typically known for. Lighting Designer Dalton Kimball – trained in part by textbooks written by Jean Rosenthal, who truly revolutionized theater lighting in the mid-20th century – used his skills to create a particular dramatic moment in the show as the actors talked about the kind of light being created, and also the after hours ‘ghost light’ present in theaters once everyone has gone home. Ably played by Elizabeth Freeman, we feel Miki’s anger and frustration about the events of the evening and the events unfolding in her life, as she carries the burden of Jean’s work even as Jean is in the hospital, unlikely to return home. Jean’s appearance earlier that night in the theater, on a gurney and accompanied by a bevy of orderlies and nurses, is absurd to Miki in the extreme, and a dangerous choice for Jean’s health. The stage hand, played by Erik Hyatt, does his best to calm Miki down, and offers her a balm when he’s at a loss to help more. As Miki muses alone onstage, Jean appears to her (portrayed by Denise Poirier), as a ‘ghost’ via the ghost light. The Jean Miki remembers, not the way she is now, sick in the hospital. They explore how they got to where they are now; of Jean’s great love of her muse, Martha Graham, and how ones upbringing shapes who you are. How light creates shadow, and how light can be a way to shower one with love. Gently crafted under the direction of Juli Brooks, Carolyn Gage’s play is an important snapshot of the struggles of actual lesbian women and the difficult, secret lives they often lived in the times before our current ‘out and proud’ era. Don’t miss this fine production.

— majeem, PortFringe 2019 Review Team