Play Review: CSUF’s production of ‘Tallgrass Gothic’ is scary for very human and timely reasons

In Arts & Entertainment, Reviews, Theater & Arts
“Tallgrass Gothic” features strong performances by the entire ensemble cast, which includes Wyn Moreno (right), Shellie Sterling (middle) and Joshua Johnson (left). They admirably embodied heavy themes of sexual abuse and isolation in a manner both impressive and professional. (Courtesy of CSUF Department of Theatre and Dance)

“Tallgrass Gothic” is an engrossing nightmare where the terrors stem from humanity’s basic desires: the need for sexual gratification and companionship even in the face of abuse and neglect. It is not a play for the squeamish, with repeated displays of sexual violence that can border on exploitative, but the play’s stunning production work and exceptional performances make it a chilling night at the Hallberg Theatre.  

The staging of the play employs a visual creativity that is rare to see in a college production. Even as the main characters engage in unspeakable acts centerstage, the rest of the cast can be found in corners of the theatre-in-the-round stage, going about their everyday business.

In one scene, the sound of rainfall can be heard over the speakers as each character onstage wraps blankets around themselves for warmth. It is a layered visual landscape and an excellent way to give each member of the cast something to do even when they aren’t the center of attention. There is always something interesting to look at, even beyond the primary drama that unfolds.

“Gothic” finds a way to make the story of a woman who loses her dignity within the eyes of those around her palpable to a student body. It immediately transports the audience into another time in Oklahoma, where a loving affair on the side of an abusive relationship can paint a woman as the cheapest sort of sinner.

Sexuality, whether it be for love, desperation or dominance, is at the core of “Gothic’s” themes.

The ensemble cast, made up entirely of MFA graduate students, gives performances that are worthy of professional standing. Though the play is often overwhelmed with bleak and terrible visions, from grounded to poetically gothic, the performances give each character an underlying humanity.

Even Tin, portrayed by Miguel Torres, who declares he becomes aroused by the look of fear in his wife’s eyes, feels like a real person instead of a one-dimensional villain. He is a terrible person, but not without his own twisted humanity. It is often challenging to find nuance in a character with few redeeming qualities, but Torres transitions from soft-spoken speeches to belligerent tirades so earnestly that it makes him a particularly fascinating watch.

However, the real powerhouse performance is that of Laura, played by Shellie Sterling. Refusing to play only upon the victimhood of her role, Sterling strikes the perfect balance between vulnerability and defiance. Time and time again, her body is used for the pleasure and ego-stroking of others, but she still attempts to seek out hope for a better life. This better life requires that she makes some deplorable decisions of her own, which gives Sterling the groundwork for a multi-faceted performance.

The rest of the cast is admirable, a standout being Laura’s best friend Mary (played by Tina A. Burkhalter) who brings much-needed comedic relief and outside insight to Laura’s many conflicts.

From a purely visual standpoint, “Tallgrass Gothic” is an absolute joy to look at. The red lights emanating from the play’s lanterns set the tone for the production’s decidedly more gothic elements, while a yellow glow spreads across the stage whenever life is not at its absolute worst. Often, as Laura dives into her own personal hell, the stage will go dark with only a few harsh lights to illuminate the figures. Shadows are cast from the actors in a way that is both theatrical and striking. At one moment toward the story’s climax, the shadows were so prominent that they were practically characters in themselves.

The last words in a play are sometimes the most important, as they function as a parting message to those who are leaving the theatre. In “Tallgrass Gothic,” the last words heard are said with such nonchalant sorrow as to make one think on it long after leaving the theater. There is no clear lesson to be garnered from any of the characters, other than how humanity is often far more twisted at its core than simple generalizations can allow. The nightmare that unfolds can hit very close to home, especially in a culture that is still quick to judge a woman based on their perceived loyalties to societal norms. It’s a timely kind of nightmare that is, sadly, timeless.

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