Sunday, February 21, 2016

Burning Desire at Seven Angels Theatre

A couple of months ago, I happened to be checking out the Seven Angels Theatre website and was pleasantly surprised to see that Lou Diamond Phillips would be starring in the world premiere of his new play, Burning Desire, right here in Waterbury. Now, I'm not by any means a fangirl of actors. I don't get starstruck. But when I saw that Lou Diamond Phillips (who was so wonderful in La Bamba, Stand and Deliver, Young Guns, a guest appearance on Psych, and now on Longmire) was going to be performing here in Waterbury, at Seven Angels, I immediately bought tickets.

Image from Seven Angels Theatre Facebook page.

Now, obviously, we get a lot of big name talent at the Palace Theater, but when you're at the Palace, you feel very distant from the performers. It's a huge theater and, depending on where your seats are, not a whole lot better than watching a performance on your giant-screen TV at home. Seven Angels, in contrast, is a small theater, with only 300 seats, which means that every seat is a good seat. For Burning Desire, I managed to get a pair of seats in the second row center, putting us only ten feet or so away from the stage.

Additionally, the audio quality was excellent. The actors were using microphones, but the audio didn't sound canned or tinny. Their voices sounded "real," as if they weren't using a sound system at all (except, of course, that I didn't have any trouble hearing them). I admit, this is a pet peeve of mine. I don't like going to a live performance only to discover that the audio quality is worse than my iPod earbuds.

Seven Angels Theatre is a big part of Waterbury history. They are located in the historic Hamilton Park Pavilion, built in 1925 as a dance hall (see my post on "Mary Della" for a brief reference to some of this history). The building was renovated and modified several times during the twentieth century. In 1991, the Pavilion became the home of Seven Angels Theatre, a nonprofit professional Equity theater.

Angels in the lobby at Seven Angels Theatre.

The brief synopsis of Burning Desire: a comedy in which the devil meddles with the true love of a modern-day Adam and Eve (in this case, Andrew and Evan, played by Ryan Wesley Gilreath and Tara Franklin). I don't know why Phillips chose Seven Angels for his play's debut, but it certainly adds a layer of meaning for a play about Lucifer to run in a theater of angels.

Phillips, who plays the starring role of Lucifer, has some fun with the name, emphasizing the first syllable so that, a couple of times, we hear him say "I am Lou... cifer." If he weren't a well-known celebrity, the gag wouldn't work as well. It's the sort of bonus feature you can use if the performer is also the writer.

The play explores a wide range of themes, from Plato's theory of reality, to Christian theology as it relates to the Devil, to relationships between men and women and the way gender roles have changed in recent decades.

Much of the play felt familiar to me, as if Andrew and Evan's interactions and disagreements were pulled from my own life. Some parts reminded me of relationships long past; other parts were more like the relationship I'm in now--we nudged each other a couple of times during the performance, when the characters seemed to be speaking for us. Now that I think about it, they kind of dress like us, too.

Tara Franklin as Evan, Lou Diamond Phillips as Lucifer, and Ryan Wesley Gilreath as Andrew.
Photo from Seven Angels Theatre Facebook page.

The devil's dancing minions (played by Sophie Lee Morris and Jackie Aitken) were delightful. In times past, we might expect to see sexy female servants portrayed as drudges, but this pair were treated by Lucifer as respected team members. That sounds weird, but I'm not sure how else to describe it. These weren't subdued Vanna Whites, functioning solely as decorative assistants. They were fully engaged in helping Lucifer cause mischief, joyously high-fiving or fist-bumping the devil to celebrate their successful deceptions.

Lucifer and his minions.
Photo from Seven Angels Theatre Facebook page.

The play is a comedy, and Phillips is great in the comedic role. As he pointed out during a recent interview for American Theater, however, he is often cast as "the brooding ethnic" character. After seeing his performance last night in Burning Desire, I'd love to see Phillips cast as a suave comedic leading man.

The play is complex, with plenty of ideas that would be fun to discuss with a group. There was one concept in the play that struck me the most: When you're desperate for a miracle, when you're willing to do anything to make something happen, how can you tell if your prayers have been answered by God or if they've been answered by the Devil?

Although I came away thinking some deep thoughts, the play succeeds as a comedy, keeping the audience laughing all the way through.

I had the chance to speak briefly with Phillips during the meet & greet photo session after the play. He says he is enjoying being in Waterbury, made mention of our brass history, and says he is making "normal person" trips to the grocery store and restaurants (I know at least one person who has spotted him out and about in Waterbury).

The play continues until March 13, after which Phillips heads to New Mexico to film the next season of Longmire. Tickets for Burning Desire can be purchased through the Seven Angels Theatre website.

The Burning Desire/Seven Angels photo shoot at the cast party on February 20.

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