By Elka Wiesenberg, Opinion Editor
When I heard that the Stern College Dramatics Society was putting on a show called Defying Gravity, my mind, of course, went to Wicked. I was quickly corrected by word of mouth and several advertisements that the gravity-defying in question has nothing to do with broomsticks and everything to do with space shuttles.
Walking into the theater a few minutes early, I found cast and crew hard at work putting finishing touches on set, lighting, and costumes. The lightbulbs, as pointed out by director and Stern College professor Reuven Russell, had just been replaced, so don’t worry about finding your seat.
The lights go out, and Claude Monet (Leah Schewitz) takes the stage. The accent is different (Monet was French, and this woman is South African), but the actress, I quickly realized, is brilliant. Monet is a godlike figure in this show, more knowing than the rest of the characters, but he shows moments of human weakness later on when talking about his mother’s garden.
After Monet’s introduction, we meet Elizabeth (Sarit Perl) and her mother, the Teacher (Chana Weiss, Vice President of SCDS). Perl was definitely the star of the show, transitioning flawlessly between the two aspects of her character: a narrative, reflective voice, and a small child feeling neglected by her mother, the Teacher, who is being sent into outer space.
The Teacher is aptly characterized; she prioritizes teaching above parenting throughout the show, showing more enthusiasm in her classroom scenes than for her daughter’s crayon drawings. The Teacher’s redeeming moment as a mother happens when she is strapped in the shuttle, about to take off into space. As Weiss says, audiences “see many sides of her in the play — you see her as a teacher, a mother, and a friend.”
Defying Gravity is a serious show, but the comedic relief comes from the bickering old married couple, Ed (Mikki Treitel) and Betty (Shayna Hain). Ed is hilarious, and Treitel perfects the gait and expressions of an older man, shuffling around and teasing his wife. Betty is earnest and wide-eyed, an adorable woman trying to get her retired husband to be adventurous with her. The fighting gets a bit old, though, and I was relieved when the couple had moments of shared smiles and love — I was getting a bit worried about the marriage by that point.
Finally, we meet bartender Donna (Tamar Guterson), the lovely confidante of the local astronauts and NASA crew, particularly CB (Eli Azizollohoff, President of SCDS), one of the men who works on the shuttle that launches the Teacher into space. Donna is a strong and spiritual woman, the most powerful and effective character of the show, and CB is an emotional drunk, wallowing in his mistakes and blaming himself for the problems that arise. Donna and CB teach the audience the deeper meaning of the show: human failure and divine consequences. What’s interesting about Donna, says Guterson, is that “the entire show is talking about space, everyone is really enthralled with space, but my character brings a duality — she’s scared of heights, [she’s] an Earth sign, and [she’s] an anchor — she’s a bartender, a listener.” Donna grounds a show that otherwise floats around in space. CB, says Azizollohoff, learns a lot from his mistakes, and “grows and develops very quickly from the disaster.”
One of the best parts of the show is the set. Rocky Pincus, SCDS Artistic Manager, with the help of alumnus Sarala Pool, truly outdid herself, creating a Space atmosphere perfectly. Her crowning masterpiece, my favorite as well as hers, are the stars that twinkle along the background, rounding out the magical effect. The most impressive prop of Propmaster Yael Nissel’s array is Donna’s bar, complete with a cart, bar stools, and a lot of alcohol bottles.
From the most minute details to the big-picture themes, I was impressed with the way the cast and crew of Defying Gravity came together to pull off such a complex show in just a few short months. This show is definitely going to be a smashing success for SCDS.
Photo: Mikki Treitel and Shayna Hain as Ed and Betty in Defying Gravity.
Photo Source: Stern College Dramatics Society