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The dark-then-light tone of Ultimate Beauty Bible
Stephen Brackett believes that driving a theatre audience toward drama means taking a detour through comedy. "I tend to be drawn to work that uses humor to get to something more somber," says the director. "I find that comedy can open up an audience and give permission to go further into drama than if they're seeing a straightforward dramatic play. That feeling of laughing, then being very deeply moved by something – that's a thrilling combination for me."
That's the combination that attracted Brackett to Caroline V. McGraw's Ultimate Beauty Bible, which he is directing for Page 73. (The production is playing at The New Ohio Theatre through Nov. 19). "I was floored by how funny Caroline is but how poignant some of her work was," Brackett recalls. "And how dark!"
From the play's opening scene, in fact, McGraw's wry tone is clear. After telling a lengthy joke about a millionaire picking a wife, Danielle (Eboni Booth) nonchalantly reveals to her two closest friends that she has ovarian cancer.
As Brackett points out, "The way she chooses to share that news is with a very long-winded joke. That really informs the people of this play and how they deal with significant life events."
As Danielle's news affects the people around her, Ultimate Beauty Bible encompasses mortality and maturity, picking apart the coping mechanisms of twentysomething city dwellers. Danielle's emotional trajectory through the story has been a central focus for the creative team, and they've been refining the character's growth through readings, workshops, and rehearsals.
The process of "sharpening the intent and world of the piece," says Brackett, began with the very first stumble-through. "There's a difference between a play that reads really well and a play that plays really well in front of a live audience," he explains. "We were able to take it far in the reading aspect of the development. But it's always such a joy to start to see it with actors embodying the words and playing the scenes in front of you."
For example, a late scene featuring Danielle's moving phone conversation with her health insurance customer service agent (Sathya Sridharan) takes on more dramatic weight in production. When Booth turns to look at Sridharan, as if seeing him through the phone and bridging their distance, it's a bittersweet moment that wouldn't play clearly in a reading. "When you're at a reading, you're listening almost to the audiobook of the actions," says Brackett. "Seeing the combination of action and language for the first time, it can be surprisingly different from what you imagined on the page."
Honing the story's dynamics has also meant reconciling the characters' relationships with those of the actors who play them. "The cast we assembled is so lovely and warm," says Brackett. "It's a huggy group, a touchy-feely group. So a lot of what we've had to work on is, 'These are people who don't necessarily have as much access to their emotion and don't necessarily express their love with hugs and kisses.' That's been a part of the process – in a delightful way – working with the warm and fuzzies and toning that down a little!"
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'Ultimate Beauty Bible.' Go here to browse our latest offers.
Follow Jack Smart at @JackSmartWrites. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel. Top photo: Eboni Booth and Alex Breaux.