We’ve had two new presidents and three elections since the last time I saw a show at The Arts Factory in September 2012. One of those presidents and one of those elections lit the spark that became Crystal Skillman’s Open in 2019, currently undergoing a Three Bone Theatre run through Oct. 30. Now that Spirit Square is shuttered for redevelopment, Open is the first of what figures to be a steady migration of local theatre productions from North College Street in Uptown to the nifty black box on the other side of I-77 at 1545 West Trade.
Directed for Three Bone Theatre by Sarah Provencal, Open is a one-woman show featuring Danielle Banks in her Charlotte debut.
We can actually trace the hour when Open began germinating on the surreal “morning after” of Nov. 9, 2016.
“Once He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was elected,” Skillman said in a subsequent interview, “the intolerant times in which we lived have increased. The day after he was elected at 6 a.m., two men in a car driving past me shouted ‘Hilary lost, bitch!’”
Out of her anger and pain came a need to escape the world of intolerance and hate she suddenly found herself in.
Skillman decided she needed magic, and her script propounds the idea that we all need magic — and we all can believe in it if we choose. The woman who addresses us, Kristen, is a magician. The Magician.
Except that she isn’t. Kristen is actually a freelance writer, a soon-to-be published author with the release of her first young adult novel, but an author who has extensively researched magic. She will rely on us, her audience, to believe in her magic and to imagine the balls she isn’t juggling, the metal rings she isn’t interlocking or pulling apart, the rope she isn’t cutting and magically restoring, and the deck of playing cards she isn’t shuffling or spreading or offering to an audience member to pick from.
Circuitously, we learn why Kristen needs this magic as she spins her love story. Each of three acts is delineated: first love, commitment, and sacrifice. Yeah, you’ll need to head to the other side of town for The Rocky Horror Show if you’re looking for something silly or frivolous.
While telling us how she has been coaxed out of the closet into a deepening relationship with Jenny, a Kinko’s worker who helped with her manuscript, Kristen clues us into why she resists committing to coming out. Before leaving home for good, Kristen’s dad had encouraged her to be who she truly was — but never to tell Mom because it would kill her.
Kristen’s fondness for misdirection may explain her drift into magic, and her fear of commitment leads to Jenny’s horrendous misfortune, which is much worse than being taunted by a couple of MAGA maniacs. The assault on Jenny by a gang of homophobes has left her in the hospital with a tenuous grip on life. Compounding Kristen’s shock and guilt, Jenny’s parents don’t want her anywhere near their precious daughter.
Now Kristen must not only believe in magic. She must start believing in herself.
Watching my first live Three Bone production in more than 20 months, I couldn’t help thinking every so often how ideal Open could have been as an online webcast during the long pandemic lockdown. Scenery, casting, costuming, and playing time are more limited than Prisoner 34042, the distinguished new two-hander that Three Bone premiered in 2019 and reprised online back in April. It’s already condensed.
The colorful lighting design by Christy Lancaster and Gordon Olson helps Banks delineate the various segments of her narrative within three acts and in framing her magic, but Provencal’s sound design is more noticeable and necessary, helping us get our bearings — and adding charm to the magic. Otherwise, the hurried and constricted presentation of Kristen’s story occasionally robbed it of sticking power.
Open lacked the tension of dialogue that frequently punctuated the narrative of 34042, when one of the actresses played multiple roles opposite our heroine. In an online presentation, the absence of additional actors in Open would merely be one more frill we were giving up for COVID-19, starting with not being in a real theater with a real audience in front of artfully fabricated scenery.
Seeing Open in an actual theater space obliges Banks to be more active and dramatic than if she were confined to a TV or computer monitor. And she really is wonderful as Kristen and The Magician, engaging with the audience with a youthful, bubbly vivacity that is only faintly tinged with shyness and hesitance. Banks is genuine in these roles, seemingly herself. We feel ourselves empathetically reaching out to her.
Unfortunately, Banks stays true to those two roles when she’s replicating key dialogues she has had with her beloved Jenny. Here, presumably with Provencal’s approval, the amateur magician becomes an amateur ventriloquist. Banks makes Jenny sound more timorous and shyer instead of the more mature and assertive human who urged Kristen to come out and pushed for lasting commitment.
Having issued so many indulgences and suspended so much disbelief, couldn’t we be asked to go a little further and accept the premise that the bubbly, slightly shy and awkward novelist/magician could miraculously, on cue, become an accomplished actress who can believably channel the Jenny she is so attached to and guilt-ridden about? Sign me up.
Without a substantial Jenny and without the two sets of parents present before us, elements of Kristen’s story begin to deflate and impact less forcefully. It’s not like Skillman didn’t have plenty of time and space to fill in these absences and give Open more heft.
Symptomatic of her crippling haste, Skillman tacks on an unnamed fourth act or epilogue that could be titled “Reconciliation.” Within the space of a single phone call, Kristen’s grief is dispelled — along with maybe her horror, guilt and regret. On our drive home, I asked my wife Sue and our friend Carol whether this had all happened before or after Kristen had left the hospital for the last time.
None of us could say for sure.
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