Review: Hand Grenades
HAND GRENADES: FIRST ITHACA FRINGE SHOW ROCKS
BY LAURA B. DARLING
Hand Grenades, a four-character, three-actor play, earned the distinction of being the opening show in the first Ithaca Fringe Festival on Thursday evening. In its curtain speech, Ithaca Fringe artistic director George Sapio announced that the part of Ophelia was being played by Catherine Rogala, not by the actor named in the program.
Fellow actors Trenda Loftin (Diana) and Myka Plunkett (Fate/Troy), director Toby Bercovici, and playwright Monica Giordano are members of the Massachusetts-based producing company Real Live Theatre. Rogala is based in New York; she’d been called in to replace another actor who’d had to drop out at the last minute, and she’d had the script for only two days.
I prepared to cut the production some slack.
Yet they blazed through the play as if they’d been rehearsing together for weeks; Rogala’s memorization skills in themselves would have been spectacular, but she truly embodied her part, and the other actors did as well.
The venue, Cinema 2 at Cinemapolis, is perfect for this minimalist play. The only set pieces, other than a black curtain backdrop that covers the cinema screen, are a couple of chairs and a stack of books that double as other objects ― coffee cups, plates of pancakes. And the actors need no more. Bercovici moves them around beautifully. I found myself thinking more than once how perfect a show this is for a Fringe festival, where everything is low-budget, and how thoughtful the director and actors were to have walked into this space for only the second time and so completely made it work for them. (Each Fringe show had only one three-hour tech rehearsal before opening.)
The play begins with a narrator setting the story of how Diana and Ophelia met in a coffee shop/bookstore, and at first the actors behave almost as puppets as she talks. Soon their story grows, and within a little more than a month they declare their mutual love and move in together (and the narration takes more of a back seat to the action, although it’s still critical to the piece).
Ophelia and Diana are both charming and funny. It’s easy to see why they fall for each other. They share delightful little intimacies―games they play together, including one in which they measure the length of their love affair. We traverse the play with them, and their lives together, through this device.
Things go swimmingly for the two lovebirds until one day something very bad happens to Ophelia. Diana could hardly be more loving and attentive―later we’ll wonder how she manages this―but Ophelia is shattered. Something shifts in their relationship . . . or does it? Perhaps the shift had come earlier, but we didn’t notice, and neither did one of them.
Meanwhile, our narrator morphs into a third character, one whose presence turns out to be another kind of menace. I won’t ruin the surprises, but if I were to choose one word to describe what this play is about, it would be “betrayal.”
Loftin and Rogala are instantly believable as the two lovers, and we can easily find ourselves identifying with them. We believe they are in love with each other. Later, Diana becomes less likable, and our sympathies for Ophelia grow. When the character of Troy, played by Plunkett, is introduced, Rogala switches character as well, taking over the role of narrator, which had been Plunkett’s. For that section she’s “on book,” using a script, but it doesn’t detract from the action. (I heard her say later that each night of the Fringe she would be off book a little more.)
Having a woman play the part of Troy was a director’s choice. (The Real Live Theatre company’s listed members are all female, but it’s not clear that is by design.) I had no trouble accepting Plunkett as a man, but I did speak to three other audience members who all said that a female in the role confused issues for them―but not enough to keep them from giving enthusiastic reviews for this delightful first-ever Ithaca Fringe offering. As do I.
Very highly recommend!