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Director Liesl Tommy on how the play has gotten richer in its latest iteration
Never underestimate how much a space affects a play. Depending on where it's performed, a single production can have wildly different personalities, with everything from the size of the room to the shape of the floor impacting what we experience.
Last year, for instance, when Fun Home transferred from the Public to Broadway's Circle in the Square, the blocking and design were adapted for a theatre-in-the-round staging. Audiences were suddenly much closer to the characters, and they arguably saw something new.
On the other hand, Danai Gurira's Eclipsed is now on Broadway after playing at the Public last fall. This time, the transfer trades the fly-on-the-wall intimacy of the downtown company's LuEsther Hall for the broad vista of the Golden Theatre. For this particular show, that means there's room to suggest bigger ideas.
Gurira's play tracks the lives of five women in the Second Liberian Civil War, which ravaged the country from 1999-2003. Four of them live on a compound as a warlord's sex slaves – though they euphemistically call themselves his "wives" – and the fifth is part of a revolutionary women's peace movement that is trying to liberate the country from suffering. As beleaguered as they are, however, none of the characters are broken, and as the show confronts the horror of their lives, it also demonstrates how they guard their minds and souls.
When Eclipsed was at the Public, audiences were so close to the cast – which includes Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o – that the personal stakes of each character had an almost physical weight. As a woman chose her path, be it violence or peace, resistance or escape, her individuality was unavoidable.
And to be sure, that quality still remains on Broadway. "For the actors, the compound is still the compound we used at the Public, so that sense of urgency is no different," says director Liesl Tommy, who has been helming productions of the show since 2009. She adds, though, that the Broadway space allows those personal moments to exist in a new context:"You're not only observing actors in the compound, but also getting more of a sense of environment and scope. The play takes on a more epic feel, where before it perhaps had a more domestic feel." For instance, we can see characters stalking through the world beyond their tiny home, moving around the edges of a set that recedes into darkness. This reminds us the story involves not just these people, but an entire nation at war.
Of course, moving to a larger theatre also means reaching a larger audience, many of whom won't be familiar with Liberian history. To that end, Tommy has adjusted the show to be newly accessible. "I'm very passionate about the audience and very concerned about what the audience is experiencing," she says. "I also care passionately about this play, and I don't want anything between the audience and this play. I want them to be leaning forward, desperate to know what happens next."
She's done two things to bring patrons closer. One is that she's asked the actors to savor the funny moments, like when the wives playfully fight over hair extensions and nail polish or when they get passionately interested in a book about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. (They decide that Lewinsky must be a second wife.) "We found ways to enjoy ourselves a little bit more, so that the audience could also go on the journey and find the highs and lows," Tommy says.
Her other adjustment comes early. "I loosened the accents in the first two scenes, and I slowed the pacing down significantly so that the audience's ear could tune to the accent," she says. "That was an act of extreme discipline on my part, because everything in me was going, 'Pick up the pace! Pick up the pace!' But I knew there was so much new information for an audience – we're in a different country, there's an accent, there are so many events in the first scene – that I had to create a patient and lively space for us all to get on the same page."
She continues, "We can all understand how it's going to sound and how it looks, and then we can accelerate as it goes. The important thing is that we all have to be together, so we can share the experience."
TDF members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Eclipsed. Go here to browse our current offers.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Saycon Sengbloh, Lupita Nyong'o, and Pascale Armand