Theater Review: eLLe
Michigan playwright Shawntai Brown has created a series of plays, some of which deal with the experiences of queer women of color. The most recent installment, eLLe-Episode Ten: This Lane Open, is set in Kalamazoo and is staged at the Judy Jolliffe Theatre in the Epic Center.
eLLe is admittedly inspired by Showtime’s The L Word. And, like the series, eLLe contains adult situations and focuses on a group of lesbian women whose lives intersect at home and at work.
Brown’s script, supported by winning performances and memorable characters, provides welcome insight into the choices, preferences, and values of a community that is often marginalized, sometimes shunned, and frequently ignored.
Love, loss, family quarrels, racial bias, the quest for personal peace, and the struggle to find stability in both friendships and sexual relationships are but a few of the themes that will resonate with both straight and LGBTQ audiences.
Brown effectively employs the device of a voice-over podcast performed by Laura Kay Henderson to introduce characters, provide local gossip, and highlight events of interest to the LGBTQ community. Another successful stylistic element is Brown’s use of monologues scattered throughout the production to give each character a chance to voice and vent her own unique perspective.
The title character, Lane - as in “This Lane Open” - played by Celine Justice, finds it difficult to achieve both a busy career and a monogamous relationship. Her values put her at odds with Izabel, her intended bride-to-be, and other relationships with friends and family. Justice’s steady portrayal of Lane provides the show’s central journey: the movement from isolation toward acceptance of the group to which she belongs.
Shannon Fleckenstein as Lane’s spurned and ghosted sister, Carrie, says she no longer wants a love relationship or her counselling job. Her witty put-downs and her self-professed desire for solitude can't hide the loneliness and disappointment she “carries” - pun intended - in one of the show’s most intriguing and appropriately named characters.
Elizabeth Field’s effervescent performance of Izabel adds humor, as her character waxes between extremes of raucous laughter and abject wailing at the loss of her intended spouse. Field is also adept at donning the masks of comedy, tragedy, and a host of suggestive costumes and playful accoutrements.
After her coffee shop, one of the town’s last lesbian gathering places, closes, Mia, played by Quinn Hornick, retreats to riding in Izabel’s shopping cart and plucking bottles of cheap rosé wine from store shelves. In this mode, Hornick presents their character as a woman thrown away, physically crushed and diminished by the loss of safe space and livelihood.
Jayla Smith, as Danniqua, gives us a cheerful upbeat grocery store manager and provides a welcome contrast to the depression and drama exhibited by some of the other characters frequenting the aisles of her supermarket.
Zayne Hobdy plays Naya, Lane’s former lover and gruff antagonist. Hobdy’s performance yields many surprises, not the least of which is her stirring defense of her own sexuality and the tender ear she turns when listening to Devon’s dating preferences.
Brooke Lindley, as Devon Black, an author and poet, provides the spiritual glue that holds this group of friends together. The celebration of Devon’s new book contract is the occasion for a concluding toast and the launch of a new podcast, narrated by former rivals Izabel and Naya, who join forces to serve town’s greater good.
If anything is lacking it’s the show’s visual presentation, including the set, lighting, and staging. At Wednesday night’s invited dress rehearsal, the blocking and positioning of characters seemed to crowd and contort some of the actors when they moved or spoke to one another. Better use could be made of both upstage and downstage areas.
The values of Face Off Theatre and Queer Theatre Kalamazoo, however, are clearly on the writing and the acting. And it is here that both companies and this production shine.
Throughout the show, playwright Brown plants subtle reminders about the effects of economic downturns, workforce realignment, changes in social media, and the fallout from the closing of LGBTQ safe spaces. Although sex, love, and race might at first glance seem to receive top billing in this play, the lives of the women Shawntai Brown writes about in eLLe are, in the end, more about building community and the strength, solidarity, and confidence that come from that effort.