Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Burning Bright is the most abstract of the experimental literary forms Steinbeck explored. The play features four scenes and four people in a take on a Medieval morality play that explores vulnerability and passion, desperation and desire. Conceived with poetic intensity, the characters are less flesh and blood people and more archetypes of folklore. Joe Saul wants to have a child to carry on his blood after he's gone. After years of unsuccessful attempts with his young wife Mordeen, he begins to dwell on his inadequacy. A dance of betrayal and love ensues.
Director Jacqueline Reid has assembled a remarkably talented cast to tackle this play. Gregory (Ziggy) Wagrowski brings his considerable acting experience to the character of Joe Saul, a man grappling with his legacy and his immortality. He handles the poetic words of Steinbeck well and brings a physical nervous energy to the character that propels the play. David Sinkus as Friend Ed is a clown with a heart. His reactions are poignant and his lumbering physicality an appropriate foil to Joe Saul's anxious and edgy portrayal.
Fusion newcomer Danyal Budare, as Victor, is most convincing when he is strong and threatening. The scenes with Victor's employer's wife Mordeen that call for compassion are less convincing. Sheridan Kay Johnson as Mordeen is an accomplished technical actress and handles the language of the play well. She does not, however, bring much warmth or sex appeal to the character, either with Mordeen's husband or her lover. More connection between each couple was needed. Steinbeck explores the power of women in much of his work. Johnson is missing this power and danger in Mordeen.
The first two scenes of the play are very successful. The pace of each zips along. The sets for the two scenes are fully developed and appropriate for the action. But, do they have to take such long intermissions to change the sets? This slows the overall build of the play. Sometimes an abstract play can best be served by a unit set and focused lighting.
The last two scenes are confusing, rushed and seemingly under-rehearsed. I suspect that the script is the real problem here. These two scenes seem more like drafts for where the playwright wanted to go. The actors valiantly work to bring the action to some sort of conclusion, but the overall effect is disjointed.
On balance, however, Burning Bright is a worthwhile evening in the theatre. The play has depth and raises many questions about the nature of humanity. Steinbeck's language, such as the phrase, "He has no blood in it," are spot on for the author's view of the world. Burning Bright features seasoned professional actors definitely worth watching.
Fusion presents this play in their new performance venue, featuring a new lighting system, a new seating configuration, new HVAC and ventilation systems, and an adjacent art exhibition and concession lobby. The company has developed this exciting multi-purpose campus during the pandemic downtime, and the arts scene in Albuquerque will be enhanced by it for years to come. Fusion is indeed arts for a new era.
Burning Bright runs September through 25, 2022, at Fusion Theatre, 708 1st St NW, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Thursdays & Fridays at 7:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 & 7:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. General Admission tickets are $40/seniors over 65: $35/students: $20. For tickets and information, call 505-766-9412 or visit FusionNM.org.
Written by John Steinbeck, Directed by Jacqueline Reid, With: Gregory (Ziggy) Wagrowski as Joe Saul, David Sinkus as Friend Ed, Danyal Budare as Victor, and Sheridan Kay Johnson as Mordeen.