Review: A Beautiful Day in November on the Greatest of the Great Lakes by The Public Theater
by Michael Meigs
San Antonio's Public Theatre has put up cast headshots and bios for Kate Benson's 2015 A Beautiful Day in November on the Greatest of the Great Lakes, but this is the only onstage image published so far—a cast photo, everyone in character and costumed. Benson provides a vigorous depiction of the familiar confusion of a gathering for the sacred family holiday of Thanksgiving. This static, expectant image looks like many a holiday photo, a souvenir of love and solidarity to be tucked away until next time.
The image is deceptive. Or at best misleading.
A Beautiful Day [. . .] is no happy snapshot; it's not a preserved-in-amber memory or the warm-and-fuzzy portrait of a happy family. Yes, it's a telling of a Thanksgiving with all those familiar rituals (getting out the hand-made table crafted specially for Thanksgiving, prepping the meal, nestling the infants in a room far from the action, retelling the mythic family stories, gossiping about a late arrival, mishaps galore). All that is warmly familiar and funny—and entirely transformed by the ensemble's devising and by Benton's dénouement.
By the way, the absurdly long title is a red herring; this action is not tied to any specific locale in the United States. It takes place in our collective subconscious.
Director Allison Price and the cast infuse a wild script with equally wild energy. As Price explains in a promo video, the script is without punctuation and without stage directions. In content, it's something of a fever dream.
The set designed by Javier Sanchez of Texas State signals a disorienting shift as soon as you enter the Cellar Theatre. The stage floor is marked out as an athletic field; the back wall is cleverly presented as a look down onto the Thanksgiving table from overhead, with a roast turkey at center, flanked by rows of Bundt pans with lit globes in their centers. The sports motif appears on blackboards back there, and two nonchalant young persons linger on either side of upstage, occasionally bantering with one another beyond our range of hearing. In comic though probably unintended foreshadowing, on opening night that turkey fell off the wall and took an inflated bounce. One of the two actors picked it up and placed it inattentively to one side.
Those two, labeled "#" and "@" in the script, are (in real life) Ollie McCrary and Liz Catchings. They're a surprise when things get rolling, because they're commentators who enthusiastically call the Thanksgiving action in bright, brainless TV talk.
Surging onto the stage come three sisters in matching hot pink aprons: Trifle, Cherry Pie, and Cheesecake, engaging frantically in the business of prepping for the big day. Except, are they?
It may take a moment for the audience to adjust its perceptions, for in their kaleidoscopic whirl about the stage, these characters demonstrate a language of movement all their own. Commentators # and @ cheerfully call out the play action, but the view onstage is in no way representational. Assembling and positioning the inherited table, an invisible object, entails intense but cryptic gesturing performed in locations far from one another. Dani Treviño as Cheesecake, the eldest, has a certain angry authority over Roxie Renée as Cherry Pie and Ginger Gamble Martel as Trifle. As other characters join the dance—and it is a dance, a rapid, precisely choreographed performance throughout—we risk becoming totally confused, for both Jonah Fujikawa and Emma Mason pop in and out of multiple roles, labeled in the rapid patter of commentators # and @.
The other three cast members are not chameleons. Isidro Medina III is the ponderous, mostly silent, benevolent Granddada; Marisela Barrera as his wife Snapdragon floats through most of the action with a demure and imperturbable smile.
And then there's Gumbo, the youngest. Late, as ever. Lee Drahl, who appears as the inhibited and somewhat clumsy youngest sister, wears unremarkable clothes. She doesn't really know what to do and in the course of the play manages to do it badly. The audience quickly becomes aware that Gumbo senses a confusion similar to its own in these hectic, overexcited events.
This staging and Benton's script are Brechtian. The didactic German master didn't want audiences to settle into passive acceptance of a presented story. His aim with his epic or dialectical theatre was to oblige the watchers to grapple with facts, usually political or ideological. He regularly shocked viewers out of their complacency with his "alienation" or "estrangement" effect (Verfremdungseffekt). Some examples here: those two sports commentators yelping along about the events of a typical Thanksgiving, unheard by characters in the story; the absurdly emblematic character names; the confusion of character identities (Fujikawa plays eight; Mason plays four; dressed in sports outfits of complementary colors, the two strike matched attitudes when there's reference to "the twins"); the contrast between the frantic young and the serene elders; and above all, the speed and the invented gestural language. As much as one may want to indulge in Thursday Turkey Day sentimentality, the piece is a loving but vituperative representation of the annual event that most Americans hold more sacred even than Christmas or the High Holy Days. Or Aïd al Fitr.
This is an intriguing, distracting, and entertaining evening. It's short, seventy-five minutes without an intermission, so you must wait until afterward to try to puzzle out the messages of playwright, director, and ensemble. The recipe for A Beautiful Day [. . .] is a big helping of sentimentality, a hefty dose of satire, a touch of disdain, celebration in quantity, and, at the very end, the full contents of a vial of dark, glistening hemlock.
That ending! After the sound and fury comes a deadly calm as the lights go down and Gumbo, spotlighted at stage center, narrates the finale. She describes phantasmagorical events in a calm, almost indifferent voice. Did Kate Benton simply get fed up with these characters and their farcical dilemmas? Gumbo, with whom the audience identifies most closely, snips off the narrative and sutures it up. She gives us a thoroughly Brechtian slap in the face.
For which, after a long moment, we can say, "Thanks. We needed that."
Comments from director Allison Price
Postscript: Performance photos released on October 19, 2021:
Released October 27, 2022:
October 14 - November 06, 2022
San Pedro Park
800 W Ashby Place
San Antonio, TX, 78212
October 14 - November 6, 2022
The Cellar Theatre, Public Theatre, San Antonio
Tickets for shows are $45 (Standard), $30 (Military/Student/Senior* with valid ID), and $15 (Child Under 12) are available online at thepublicsa.org/currentseason, by phone at (210) 733-7258.
The Public Theater of San Antonio is wheelchair accessible. For additional information about group sales, contact Patron Services Manager, Ariel Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Events in Celebration of A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes
Opening Night— Friday, October 14 2022 at 7:30 p.m.
After Words (Panel Discussion) — Sunday, October 23, 2022 at 2 p.m.