If months stuck at home inspired you to start rambling conversations with your pets, Alabaster, Salt Lake Acting Company’s newest play, might be uncomfortably relatable. What might be less familiar is that in this case, the animals talk back.
Alabaster, written by Audrey Cefaly, follows New York photographer Alice (Reanne Acasio,) who has paused her normal work of taking celebrity portraits to complete her passion project: photographing women with physical scars. One of her subjects is June (Charlotte Munson,) who was left with scars across her back after a violent storm killed her family. June copes by talking with her two goats: a kid Weezy, (Tamiyka White) who responds, and mother Bib, (Catherine Doherty) who doesn’t. (The goats, both anthropomorphized and not, are played by human actors using a mix of English and bleat.) As Alice photographs June in her home, the two women form an uncertain connection that forces them both to question their roles as artists and confront both of their traumatic pasts.
The production of Alabaster reflects both the challenges and opportunities of making art during the pandemic. SLAC hired Utah-based technicians to work behind-the-scenes, employing local working artists as many creatives still struggle to find work. Director Martine Kei Green-Rogers, meanwhile, led the cast from New York, while the actors performed virtually from across the country. Each cast member was sent materials to construct their own sets, costumes, props and lighting equipment at home, essentially creating four miniature black boxes filmed at four different locations.
The performance is pre-filmed and edited by Kenny Riches. The format manages to maintain some live-theater intimacy and avoids the dreaded technical difficulties that have plagued pretty much every Zoom gathering since March, from awards shows to international climate summits. Of course, some of the immediacy of an in-person performance is lost, but there are some unexpected advantages to this approach.. Watching actors up-close and personal, often staring right at the camera, forges an intimate connection that’s not possible to experience from the back of a theater.
Riches smoothly shows each of the four cast members interacting and quietly reacting—in one funny early scene, Weezy (that’s the talking goat) becomes an audience member herself, heckling and eating popcorn. At other moments, the screen focuses on just one or two actors, guiding the audience to focus on their perspective. This play, which takes place entirely in one cramped farmhouse, feels like a particularly appropriate choice for performers confined to small spaces of their own.
Though Cefaly’s script tackles difficult subject matter, the dialogue has enough humor, lived-in details and surreal touches to avoid feeling too heavy. (The talking goats help.) The actors have an extra burden to create chemistry with a cast they aren’t sharing a physical space with, but the performances are natural and compelling. Munson and White are both having a lot of fun, and their exasperated back-and-forth is human enough to make you temporarily forget that one of the characters isn’t. (Makeup artist Kelly Donahue does portray June’s many scars, but there is no animal makeup for either of the goats.) Munson’s central monologue describing the traumatic storm that physically and emotionally scarred her is a highlight of the play, and Acasio balances her with a quieter but equally moving performance Both of these women connect through their creativity, using painting and photography to portray and overcome pain. The story’s focus on creating art through trauma resonates especially in 2021, and the production’s resourceful origin story proves that SLAC too is capable of creating moving work even in difficult circumstances.