by Jackson Mikkelsen
Thursday night I attended the Theatrix production of Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Tatiana Nicholle Davis. This opening night performance was well attended by a student audience whom certainly identified directly with the play’s characters and messages.
Housed in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film, Theatrix is a student-run theatre company whose mission is to provide UNL students with a variety of theatre opportunities. Gloria, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a dark comedy following the daily lives of American millennials as they navigate ambition, generational divide, and humorous workplace drama. UNL’s Lab Theatre is set up in the round, immersing the audience into the action of the play. The story takes place in the office of a big Manhattan magazine, effectively established through the minimalist set design by Marty Wolff and contemporary costume design by Griffin Gissler. Although the characters have different bosses, projects, and aspirations, they all identify with the same generational issues. They aren’t content in their mundane workplace, and they fear a temporary desk job could turn into an unfulfilling career.
The first act of the play begins as a typical workday for three aspiring writers working as Editorial Assistants in a tight set of cubicles. Dean (Paul Schack) comes in hungover again, this time after a drunken night at a party for Gloria (Hilda Esther Rey): a peculiar co-worker from down the hall. Dean is training a new publishing intern from Harvard named Miles (Travis Banks), who soon realizes the job is not what he thought it would be. The fabulous, intelligent, and opinionated Kendra (Nikki Wang-Ferrara) shows up to work later on, equipped with a Starbucks iced coffee and shopping bags. As the workday rolls along, tensions arise when news of a deceased singer breaks out. The trio finds out from a fact checker, Lorin (Simon Gissler), that none of them get to write about it. This sparks a series of dramatic outbursts and arguments about their jobs, skill sets, and modern media as a whole. An unexpected twist to end Act One left audience members shocked as the intermission lights went up. The second act is the aftermath of this event.
Tatianna Nicholle Davis’ direction works well in the round, with the artistic intent of the work successfully expressed by the actors and design team. Davis’ choice to use moments of silence for the characters to do a little work emphasizes the dull atmosphere of the workplace, contributing to the ultimate realism of the play. As someone who worked tedious desk jobs, I think Davis’ direction is incredibly convincing and resonates well with younger audiences while offering insight for older generations. The tension between Dean, Kendra, and Ani drives the first act of the play. There is a clear sense of motivation for each character’s individual objectives. The hatred dynamic between Dean (Paul Schack) and Kendra (Nikki Wang-Ferrara) is both comedic and insightful, tackling many existential questions on privilege, success, and religion.
The entire cast is outstanding in multiple roles, each having a commanding presence, confidence, and believability on stage. Hilda Esther Rey successfully tackles the complex role of Gloria, constructing the character far beyond the limited textual development. Her voice is unique, contributing to our view of Gloria as lonely and misunderstood. Paul Schack leaves audiences stunned by his character’s dynamic shift, articulating through voice and action the effects trauma has on people. Nikki Wang-Ferrara is phenomenally explosive as Kendra, a great conversational presence as her character overreacts about a series of temporary workplace conflicts constituting a bigger issue. Both Schack and Wang-Ferrara do a superb job of constructing the arc of their arguments vocally and physically, while still alluding to the underlying friendship between them. Maria Smal’s great comedic timing contributes to the perception of office friendliness, masking how the characters really feel. Travis Banks plays three distinctly different characters throughout the play, each well constructed, hilarious, and current. Simon Gissler, the only cast member who plays the same character throughout the play, acts well as the reluctant and tongue-tied Lorin. He makes great transitions between the two sides of the character, encompassing both the work and personal aspects of the character.
Every actor playing multiple roles did a tremendous job of highlighting the differences between each character. If staged in a larger theatre, audiences would’ve had to look in their programs to see who played who because of the difference in voice and physicality. This is a compliment to the acting abilities of these performers, and the training within the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. The transitions between loud, dramatic fights and comedic workplace shenanigans created joy for the audience. Act Two contributed tremendously to Davis’ artistic intent for the play as the audience reflected on their lives and past relationships with people, asking some crucial questions about the human condition.
Gloria is great entertainment to escape the stress of the week, while still remaining informative. The play continues this weekend, with performances September 21st and 22nd at 7:30pm and September 23rd at 2:00pm in the Lab Theatre (3rd Floor) of the UNL Temple Building. Come out and support these local students! You won’t regret it.
Gloria contains mature content and violent themes that may not be suitable for all audiences.
Jackson Mikkelsen is a senior International Baccalaureate student at Lincoln High School. Heavily involved in the performing arts at Lincoln High, Jackson plans to pursue performing and directing after high school. Notable roles include Pippin (Leading Player) at Doane College, Julius Caesar (Decius) at Lincoln High, and Deathtrap (Clifford) with Silicon Prairie Theatre. Jackson is the president of the Lincoln High Theatre Board and enjoys painting, long walks in the woods, and fancy soda!