Though Phoenix Rising is reminiscent of A Chorus Line and The Breakfast Club (also circa 1985) in its confessional approach to revealing deeply disturbing and life-altering backstories, writer/director Laura Gosheff changes up an overused formula by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall in innovative ways. She employs a distinctive framing device. An archetypal Storyteller introduces the play with poetical soliloquies. The Storyteller reappears with her “Greek chorus” several times throughout the play. In each instance, the Storyteller comments on people and events taking place in both worlds. This approach separates the play from a traditional “this why my life is horrible” exposé, to a play with a unique and powerful voice.
Four teenage girls battle each other and their demons — parental abandonment, abuse, addiction, mental illness, and homophobia, among others — in dramatic encounters that take place over a year. They discover that they each have a burden that they have kept private. And in order to move on, they need to share their secrets with the group. However, their classmate, Jolie (Rachel Haas), decides to deal with her particular secret differently, and Jolie’s choice affects them all in unanticipated ways.
An exemplary and ethnically-diverse cast of actors portray the high school girls: Angela (Julia Peterson), Carmen (Miranda Roldán), Edwina (Nichollette Shorts), and Lola (Whitney Biancur). Kristen Vaughan is convincing as both an archetypal guide and the worldly, been there, woman of experience, Grace.
The Cassandra myth is an integral part of the play. In Greek mythology, Cassandra is given the gift of prophecy, albeit a foresight of misfortune, doom and/or disaster. However, Cassandra is forever cursed in that nobody believes her prophecies. Each of the girls takes on the veil of Cassandra, where their traumatic experiences and foresights of danger are ignored and/or dismissed. Gosheff’s decision to use the Cassandra myth and classical Greek dramatic forms (with a touch of urban patois), along with poetry and dance movement, highlights the parallels between the two settings and two worlds. This framing device underlines the choices each girl makes in more meaningful ways.
Writer/director Gosheff has witnessed hundreds of women who have endured, despite maintaining silence in the face of adversity; she also draws from her own experiences as a “survivor” of sexual assault. The stories of these girls are powerful because they ring authentic, though they are also told with humor and compassion.
In her set construction of a high school social worker’s classroom, Sheryl Liu’s choice of using staccato design elements against a black and white checkered linoleum floor works effectively– distressed-looking school lockers punctuate on one side; a blackboard pops out in the center; and a teacher’s desk with five open seats is situated on the other side. The actors move easily throughout the room, as they transition from the 1985 world to the Other World.
Movement designer Javier Baca takes advantage of the spacial design most notably with the Other World scenes, particularly with Jolie’s grande jeté and pirouette in her “spirit” dances. Lighting designer Seth Reiser complements the transitions from one setting to another — classroom lighting to locker lighting to soliloquy lighting to Greek Chorus/Fairytale lighting. In each, he creates a seductive intimacy.
Angela Harner’s 1985 costumes are Cyndi Lauper chic — retro cut dresses and skirts and lots bright colored accessories; her Other World masks and goddess couture are vivid contrasts. Whether the music is Other World Fairytale Music or rhythmic tribal rumbling or pop, Lena Gabrielle impressively distinguishes both Worlds and the import of each.
The end song and theme for Phoenix Rising: Girls and the Secrets We Keep is Pat Benatar’s song, “We Belong.” The upbeat and insistent tune aptly illustrates how phoenixes can rise from the ashes of despair and persevere — live courageously:
“Whatever we deny or embrace for worse or for better
We belong, we belong, we belong together.”
Phoenix Rising (through July 16, 2016)
The Lion Theatre on Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.livinglotusproject.org/
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission