By Noah Harper
Section: ArtsMarch 24, 2017
“Mirrors,” directed by Otis Fuqua ’19, is a wholly satisfying one-act play staged by the Brandeis Players. I was pleasantly surprised by the dynamic, experimental visuals and the cohesive, twisting narrative.
On the surface, it is the story of Fred (Abram Foster ’19), an aging, philosophical father surrounded by what might seem like a regular family. His children ask him for advice, his wife makes him dinner, and everything seems normal. But there is something deeply wrong lurking beneath the surface.
It is all a lie, Fred discovers. In a plot twist, evocative of “Manchester by the Sea,” the play reveals a secret about the world that completely changes the dynamics at play—which I won’t reveal to avoid spoiling the play.
Written by the late playwright John O’Brien, this one-act show delivers on its simple premise. Opening with an elaborate sequence involving the actors’ shadows dancing on a screen, we get a visual prelude to the action: Figures flit back and forth, twisting into grotesque shapes. The use of scale in this projection sequence is also quite impressive. Lit from behind by a single yellow bulb, the actors on the screen are able to change their size at will and combine to create new shapes.
The sound design of this sequence—and the rest of the play—is also notable. Created by Sasha Ruiz ’17 and Talia Loeb ’20, their work with strings and choral voices creates an effective auditory dimension that draws the audience into the experience and underlines dramatic shifts.
The sound and visuals combine to create great foreshadowing in the projection sequence. Fred aimlessly walks around the twisting figures, while another character, Doctor (played by Sivan Spector ’18, who also plays Fred’s wife, Sarah), places her gnarled fingers over Fred’s head, manipulating him. In the play’s penultimate scene, once Fred’s mental state has unraveled, these gestures underscore the psychological dynamic.
Speaking about this sequence, Fuqua said that it “was the element I had the most fun working on. I began by researching shadow theater, finding images that were striking and doable, and then piecing together an outline for a story with those fragments.” As for its function, he said that the “prologue was designed to inform the audience of the play’s backstory, while maintaining enough vagueness for the action of the play to unfold unexpectedly.”
In terms of set design, there is the aforementioned screen, and also several painted wooden blocks, resembling Tetris pieces. The characters stand and sit on these, and in the climactic scene, in which Fred realizes the true nature of his reality, the Doctor even climbs up on top of one.
I appreciated the blocking in this production, how they used their space. One of the highlights of Fuqua’s direction is the ability to create depth. As Fred’s sons, Chip (Riely Allen ’18) and Freddie (Josh Rubenstein ’19), ask him deep questions, like “I want to know what love means,” they constantly move back and forth between these blocks, sitting down, standing up, making good use of the dimension that is available.
In this portion of the play, protagonist Fred remains immobile, sitting wistfully in a chair below the stage. He doesn’t look at his kids when he speaks to them and stares off into the distance, addressing us, the audience, instead. He seems distant, confused, like he knows, deep down, that none of this is real.
But even before the bubble is popped, this vague feeling that something is wrong begins to seep back in. Fred tells his son about about a dream he had, in which he witnessed his house burning down. He says that he had the keys in his hands, but did not go in to save anyone.
Freddie asks his father another question. “What do people do?” As Fred Senior answers, Rubenstein plays around with a little red ball in his hand. As the discussion heats up, he grips the ball, his fingers visibly playing anxiously with its surface. It is impeccable object work on Rubenstein’s part.
It is evident that even in this dreamland, Fred still bears anxieties—worries that any parent might have. The falseness of this created world is demonstrated by the play’s use of sitcom laugh-track audio, canned laughter and applause that plays sporadically after actors deliver a line. While never coming after a piece of dialogue that is actually funny (it’s not intended to be), the laugh-track does add a certain eeriness and a sonic element that helps indicate that there is something fundamentally wrong with this world.
The protagonist’s existential crisis comes to a head when, all of a sudden, his three children appear and begin yelling a cacophony of obscenities at him. It begins when his daughter, the aloof Marita (Halley Geringer ’19), tells him that she’s “not having any of it.” Marita is soon joined by Chip and Freddie, and they jointly scream hateful vitriol at their father.
The lighting during this scene is effective: tiny flashlights coincide with a dimming of the lights creating an interesting visual of a deluge of little lights cascading over the overwhelmed father. They depart, and Fred tries to clean up each individual gleaming piece from the ground.
The show then transitions. Lights change once again. The Doctor appears. She is much different than the affable housewife before. Wearing a dark cloak and jewels in her hair, wielding a quavering cane that lights up. Spector’s movements, too, are impressive. The way her character moves reminded me particularly of the Skeksis from Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal.” In comparison to her other character, the housewife Sarah, the way that the Doctor conducts herself is vastly different. It’s a nice touch of detail that adds to the overall experience.
“You suffered a psychological break,” Doctor says, “No one blames you Fred … no one holds it against you that you need a fantasy to cope.”
“Your purpose, Fred, your purpose is out there!” she tells him. At this moment, Fred cannot bear living like this any longer, and, despite having been sedentary for much of the past 50 minutes, he leaps to his feet, agitated, screaming, “I’m not alone in here!”
While I loved Spector’s performance, I am not entirely sure about the narrative motivation here. Why can’t Fred keep living in his dream world? In an otherwise enjoyable play, I found that this bit of poorly-explained story stuck out.
“I was attracted to ‘Mirrors’ because as a first-time director I wanted a play that would offer freedom to make strange and bold decisions, and a play that takes place inside of a character’s head seemed a good place to start,” Fuqua said. He also added that the community theater debut of “Mirrors” was at Brandeis in the 1980s.
In terms of what Fuqua wanted audience members to take away from the production, he said, “I hope the audience left feeling a threshold has been crossed for the UTC [Undergraduate Theater Collective].” He felt that the UTC was an underutilized resource, that he wanted more people to take advantage of. “If you have a crazy idea you’re passionate about, there are people who want to work with you to realize it, resources to bring it to fruition, and a strong theater-going community that wants to see it. I took risks. Not all of them worked and others were really successful, but I am glad to have taken all of them. Theater should be brave, and working within the mold is not.”